The impending electoral conference of the ANC is manifesting itself in a myriad of ways, but perhaps most noticeably on the benches of the National Assembly. We have suddenly started to witness previously docile and executive minded MP's who, after years of ministerial acquiescence and indifference, are now turning with gusto on ministers who belong to opposing ANC factions. But perhaps the most glaring example is the heightened daily displays of blatant party political partisanship shown by our National Assembly Speaker, Baleka Mbete. Mbete's shameless use of the speakers chair to bully and intimidate the opposition has recently hit new lows with Mbete now entering the debates from the chair and slagging off members of the opposition.
The National Assembly Guide to Procedure (2004) sets out that "although affiliated to a political party, the Speaker is required to act impartially and to protect the rights of all parties. For the Assembly to function correctly there has to exist a covenant of mutual respect between parties represented in the assembly and the Speaker. The rules of the National Assembly, acknowledging the importance of this covenant, explicitly direct the Speaker to conduct herself impartially. Rule 26(4) states that "the Speaker must act fairly and impartially and apply the rules with due regard to ensuring the participation of members of all parties in a manner consistent with democracy".
Whenever the Speaker acts in a way that is partisan, biased or conducts herself in a manner that overtly favours the ANC agenda, she breaks that covenant and at the same time undermines the very rules that she is tasked with upholding and enforcing. If the Speaker can break the rules with such impunity how on earth does she think she can then enforce them credibly on other members?
The inappropriateness of Mbete's dual roles as ANC chairperson and Speaker of the National Assembly are part of the problem. Her role as chairperson of her political party makes it virtually impossible for Mbete to ever be seen as an impartial arbiter of debates. Nowhere is this more evident than the manner in which President Zuma and his cabinet is protected by Mbete during oral question sessions. These are the only unscripted opportunities that MP's have to hold the executive accountable, Mbete never fails to protect the executive from tough, probing questions by opposition MP's.
An examination of the anatomy of many of the national crises, from Nkandla to the SABC and SASSA can be traced back to Parliamentary inaction and failure. The Nkandla Constitutional court judgement was a damning indictment on the failure of Parliament to do its job. Since this serious judgement not one thing has been done by the Speaker or the institution to address the identified failings. Instead the pattern continued, for an entire year before the SABC implosion, communications minister, Faith Muthambi, was allowed to regularly evade parliamentary accountability with complete impunity by simply not answering written and oral questions by opposition MP's or by not showing up when tough questions were on the order paper.
The same pattern applied with Social Development Minister, Bathabile Dlamini who was also consistently aided and abetted by the Speaker to avoid answering the tough questions relating to the impending SASSA grants crisis. Dlamini was allowed to regularly and intentionally mislead the house that her department stood ready to take over social grant payments on the 1 April 2017. When opposition MP's challenged these obvious lies in the house the Speaker rushed to Dlamini's defense, instead of robust scrutiny Dlamini was shielded from accountability.
The executive accountability and oversight that the Constitution demands requires a National Assembly that is truly unafraid of tackling and holding the executive accountable. It is equally essential that it is not impeded from performing rigorous oversight and from asking the tough questions by the Speaker, the very person who instead should be protecting and upholding the role National Assembly. Mbete's blatantly biased behavior and executive minded approach is bad for our Parliament and bad for our democracy.