July 04, 2020

First committee surprises by showing how it can be done

First committee surprises by showing how it can be done

In a unexpectedly promising start to the sixth parliament’s committee schedule, the Rules Committee of the National Assembly met, on 5 June, before any other committees were ready, under the motherly but firm chairing of Speaker Thandi Modise ‑ and the committee demonstrated how it could be done.


The NA Rules Committee has to go first because it decides on the range of portfolio committees required to shadow and oversee the new government ministries, and determines their name and the composition of each.

With the announcement of the reconfigured Cabinet by President Cyril Ramaphosa and the slight paring down of government portfolios from 36 to 28, the number of portfolio committees changed and their composition is one of the important decisions that the Rules Committee determines.

It was decided that committee would be composed of 11 members. Reflecting the proportionality of their representation in the House, it was readily agreed at the meeting that each committee would comprise six Members from the ANC, two from the Democratic Alliance, one from the third largest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, and two more to represent the plethora of the other smaller parties.

Any new members might be lulled into thinking that this is how it normally works.

The Rules Committee also decides party sequence at question time, the number of members’ statements, the period of time for such statements and the sequence of party participation, and parliament’s representation in various international and statutory structures.

These decisions were discussed apparently painlessly, as were most decisions that were reached at this first committee meeting. Any new members might be lulled into thinking that this is how it normally works.

It doesn’t, as subsequently demonstrated by the furore surrounding the shock reappearance in parliament of a number of Members who had been booted out by the president, only to return through the back door as proposed committee chairpersons.

But that drama was still days away, and the hour-long proceedings of the NA Rules Committee was surprisingly peaceful, almost soporific. Compared to your average committee meeting, one could almost nod off to the gentle sounds of EFF Members ever-so respectfully requesting permission to speak.

It was not that they were not dealing with the usual challenging decisions. They were; but there was something unusual in the collegial way it was done. The EFF’s normally fiery Mbuyseni Ndlozi pointed out that given that his party had now almost doubled its seats, the speaking time allocated to it should increase accordingly.

It was taken as a fair point and left undisputed, especially after fellow EFF-er Floyd Shivambu reminded the Chairperson that in the previous parliament, the party with its 25 Members had been allocated only one minute more than much smaller parties such as the African Peoples’ Convention (APC), which had a single Member of Parliament.

Given that the Rules Committee was making decisions on a range of issues related to the structure and functioning of the House, it was surprising that the only voice raised came from chairperson Thandi Modise, who stamped her style of leadership right from the start by chiding Members for starting late, something she “detests”.

That was the only sign of Modise’s well-known capacity to assert her command when needed, as had already been demonstrated in the House during a parliamentary induction and training session. The rest went smoothly along.

Amongst issues discussed were guidelines and determinations for regular items on the agenda of NA plenary sittings, the sequence and times for party participation in question sessions with the President, and allocations of the speaking time for parties during plenary debates.

A potentially fraught proposal to establish an oversight committee on the presidency was raised, and deftly resolved speedily by a ruling from the chairperson that this would be scheduled for discussion at a later date.

In the relatively brief meeting ‑record time compared to the average committee meeting ‑ parties were falling over each other to display consensus on most of the issues raised.

The appointment of party whips was also discussed and agreed to. Whips are powerful figures responsible for organising party business, in keeping members informed about party and parliamentary business, ensuring members attend committee meetings and House plenary sittings.

There would be a total of 62 whips drawn from the 400-seat NA. The ANC with 230 seats would have 35 whips, the DA with 84 seats would have 13 whips, the EFF with 44 seats would have seven whips, the Inkatha Freedom Party with 14 seats would have two whips, as would the Freedom Front Plus with 10 seats, the African Christian Democratic Party with four seats would have one whip and the smaller parties would be allocated two whips.

Ndlozi requested a discussion about time allocation for debates, a matter that he pointed out had been omitted from preparatory documents. Now that the EFF officially represented 11% of the voting public, he felt it should be allocated 11% of the time available for debates.

Chairperson Modise took the point, but suggested that such matters were the concern of the Programme Committee, due to make its first appearance soon after, also under herself as the chair.

She stated that the principle being proposed by the EFF in respect of the percentage of time to be allocated to each party was acceptable. Could the committee agree to take it to the Programme Committee where they could bear that principle in mind? Certainly, it was agreed by all.

Modise, and other Members from the ANC, were at pains to make the point that this was a “multi-party parliament” and small parties “had to have a voice”. What implications that would have for the EFF now that it is no longer a small party, was not pursued. Instead it was tactfully pointed out that the Freedom Front Plus had also shown a considerable growth in electoral support, and therefore in the number of seats it now occupies.

Modise was insistent that smaller parties must have an opportunity to speak, which was not contested, and one of the big take-aways of this meeting was a committee decision to reconsider the current allocation of one minute debate time, with a proposal that even the smallest party gets more time in a House debate. It was agreed that some number crunching was called for to ensure that all parties, irrespective of size, would have no less than three minutes.

Dr Mulder of the FF+ suggested extending the overall time spent in debates to allow for more opportunities for all. This idea went nowhere The Chairperson noted the point, but suggested it depended on what was being debated.

Ndlozi got a rise out of the ANC when he proposed that Ministers be treated as ANC speakers using up ANC time in their contributions. “They repeat the same things,” he said. “It had to be remembered that Ministers were, in fact, Members of Parliament.” That idea, too, was stopped in mid-air and the chairperson requested that the meeting move on with the agenda.

This was not the NA Rules Committee of old, which only recently had battled it out over the revision of House rules, a protracted process first proposed in 2012 that gained some momentum when it became clear that something had to be done to tighten up House discipline and decorum, but only agreed upon and adopted in May this year.

The ANC committee Members seemed determined to allow all parties a fair opportunity for participation. True, it could afford to be generous with debating time given its still considerable electoral majority. But this seemed to be a less arrogant ANC, possibly one more aware of the blow to its majority at the May poll.

Moira Levy

Additional information sourced from the Parliamentary Monitoring Group.

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Notes from the House is an independent online publication that tracks and monitors Parliament’s role in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to improve the lives of South African citizens. Published by Moira Levy with the support of the Claude Leon Foundation.

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