Baleka Mbete Must Go

2014-09-11 08:04

William Lenthall’s name is, probably, not very well known outside of England. Given that he was Speaker of the House of Commons in the 1600s that should come as no surprise. However, Lenthall is immortalised in British parliamentary history, for reasons that our current Parliament, and Speaker in particular, would do well to reflect upon.

In 1642, at the height of the English Civil War, King Charles I did what no monarch has dared to do since: he forcibly entered the House in order to search for, and order the arrest of, 5 troublesome MPs. The MPs in question were unsympathetic to the King’s cause and took every opportunity – including parliamentary proceedings – to undermine his authority. The King, who objected to Parliament’s attempts to reduce his powers, commanded that Speaker Lenthall divulge the location of the MPs so that they could be arrested for high treason, and put to death.

Lenthall famously replied by saying ‘‘May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor the tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.’’ That reply, which frustrated the King’s efforts to consolidate power, started a number of traditions in parliamentary practice. All of them are reflective of Lenthall’s attitude towards his role as Speaker: the Speaker serves at the pleasure of the House as its guardian and protector.

History, it seems, has a tendency of repeating itself. Barring the fact we no longer have the death penalty, and that our head of state is more chief-like than King, it would seem that our democracy is under threat in exactly the same way. We exist at the behest of an increasingly power-drunk Executive that holds mechanisms of accountability in contempt.

The recent attacks on the Office of the Public Protector; the behaviour of the ruling party over Nkandla; the vilification of the Opposition; and, the threat by the security cluster to intervene in Parliament, are symptoms of a deeply embedded pathology of a political party that understands little about constitutional supremacy.

This deepening crisis of constitutionally compliant governance has meant that the Opposition has focused less on each other and more on the ruling party. That is a good thing. Too often, significant Opposition gains have been undercut by smaller parties aiming their ire at each other, rather than at the ANC. Coordinated plans, such as their stance on Nkandla, and the motion of no confidence against the Speaker, are good examples of where, even though numerically weak, the Opposition can put the ANC under significant pressure.

The behaviour of the Speaker is cause for concern. Baleka Mbete’s dual role as ANC Chair and Speaker of the House are fundamentally incompatible. She cannot be so embedded within a political party and simultaneously be wholly independent of it, as the latter demands. Being Speaker requires her to exercise herself with the kind of impartiality one would expect of a judge. Being ANC Chair, conversely, demands that she put the party first.

On her watch, Parliament has captured the public’s imagination for all the wrong reasons. Its failure to do anything, rather than its capacity to effect change, has made it dominate the public’s attention. Under Executive-dominance it has been reduced to an ineffective institution that is unable to fulfill the mandate given to it by the Constitution. It is incapable of holding the Executive to account.

And Mbete seems just fine with that. Her treatment of the EFF highlights this. Not only has she been incredibly heavy-handed in how she has dealt with them thus far, she has also sought to advance the agenda of the ruling party through the Speaker’s Office by silencing its political opposition.

The move to oust Mbete will fail because the Opposition lacks the numerical strength to do so. But this will damage her legitimacy to speak on behalf of the whole House. Indeed, after today, no one will be under any illusions that she only speaks for those who sit on the Government benches. However, this will be a stark reminder to her that she does not enjoy the confidence of a significant number of her colleagues and the millions of voters they represent.

Simply put, if the security cluster’s armed forces were to one day storm the chamber and demand of her the whereabouts of troublesome MPs, would she respond as Lenthall did? I doubt it. And that’s exactly why she must go.

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