August 20, 2019

If you really want to understand parliament, here is what you must do

To witness the best functioning committee in Parliament you have to get up really early every Thursday morning, even in the bleak Cape midwinter, and make your way to room E249 on the second floor of the parliamentary complex’s National Assembly building, writes JAN-JAN JOUBERT.

There, in the meeting room initially constructed for the Indians Only chamber of the apartheid era tri-cameral parliament (grandly but vacuously known as the House of Delegates), promptly at 8:30 am every Thursday you will find the members of the National Assembly Programme Committee (NAPC), and you will be afforded the best bird’s eye view of what’s happening in parliament.

Promptly yes, because the new broom in the National Assembly Speaker’s chair, respected struggle veteran, Thandi Modise, is the only committee chair in parliament who starts on time. She cannot abide slackers, as she made clear at the first meeting of the NAPC after the May general elections. “If you are late, I continue without you,” she warned, and she has been as good as her word.

Not for her the often long-winded and utterly unnecessary introductions offered by so many other parliamentary committee chairs. She moves through the often voluminous agenda firmly focused on the finishing line. If you snooze, you lose.

The joint responsibility for keeping this institution they all love so much chugging along has fostered a sometimes grudging respect among different party members.

Luckily, the committee is composed of many of our country’s leading MPs, who prepare for the meetings well and can keep up with the Speaker’s pace. Modise is joined by her deputy, Lechesa Tsenoli, and the three chairpersons of the House: Cedric Frolick, Grace Boroto and Madala Ntombela. The ANC chief whip, Pemmy Majodina, does not say much, largely leaving the talking to her deputy, the experienced Doris Dlakude, an expert cutter of deals with opposition parties. The DA chief whip, John Steenhuisen, is one of Parliament’s best known and wittiest characters. Of late, he is accompanied by a new deputy, Jacques Julius, who edged out his predecessor, Mike Waters, by a single vote in a rather bitterly contested internal DA caucus election.

The EFF’s interests are normally represented by its deputy chief whip, Hlengiwe Mkhaliphi, who does not suffer fools gladly but has built a reputation for warmth and fairness which stands her in good stead. When she is joined by her party’s chief whip, Floyd Shivambu, they form a formidable pair. Moving down the line of opposition whips, next are our nation’s two most experienced MPs, Dr Corné Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus (31 years on these benches) and the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Narend Singh, who has been in Parliament on and off for the past three decades. Between them, they know parliamentary procedure and precedent backwards, as they should – after all, their parliamentary pedigrees predate the dawn of South African democracy!

The weekly meeting of these leading parliamentarians, and the joint responsibility for keeping this institution they all love so much chugging along, has fostered a sometimes grudging respect.

The smaller parties’ whips also attend, which has lately led to some heated but rather hilarious exchanges as the pecking order is established. Of particular concern is the speaking time allocated to each small party. During the previous parliamentary term (the fifth Parliament), it was decided that each small party would be allocated three minutes per debate, because the previous allocation of one minute was too short to make a decent point. But now, like Oliver Twist, the eight smallest parties (two seats and less) want more. The leaders of the Matatiele-based African Independent Congress (AIC) and the Muslim grouping, Al Jamaah, have been specifically vocal on this.

“If the ANC does not give us more speaking time, the President’s comments about reconciliation in the State of the Nation will mean nothing,” exclaimed Al Jamaah leader and its sole MP, Ganief Hendricks, at the first NAPC meeting that he attended. He tried to make the point that three minutes speaking time was unfair, until a parliamentary official explained the centrality of the principle of proportionality to him, and added that if Al Jamaah was given time strictly according to its number of votes in the election, he would get exactly sixteen seconds! That shut him up, but not before one of the ANC whips interjected with “Welcome to reality” and Mkhaliphi told him to go and win elections if he wants to speak for longer.

In fact, the parliamentary officials play a central role in these early Thursday morning briefings. The secretary to the National Assembly, Adv. Masibulele Xaso, is in attendance, as are officials from the parliamentary legal services and the committee section. These officials are extremely competent – if ever you feel somewhat worried about our parliament and whether it operates, these officials will restore your faith somewhat.

Their reports provide the backbone of the NACP. Progress with every bill before parliament is mapped out meticulously, as is the progress made by every committee. The MPs in attendance red flag many issues before they arise and obtain legal opinions from Parliament’s lawyers, who are in attendance with their specialist knowledge of parliamentary law, custom and precedence.

The chief whips of the larger parties are good at foreseeing and raising these issues before they happen in the House, and because they tackle them beforehand in the closed session of the Chief Whips Forum every Wednesday morning, or alternatively at the NAPC, a sometimes grudging mutual respect develops across party lines, which over time turns into trust in each others’ integrity, spanning of political divides and providing the possibility of solutions to heated differences in the House.

In this, Modise’s calm personality and her perceived fair even-handedness has played a huge role in preventing the strife and even violence of the fifth Parliament. Of course, it is early days yet, but it is also a matter of so far, so good. In politics, you reap what you sow.

The NAPC also decides the parliamentary programme for the next week and the months to come. It provides the keen parliamentary observer with invaluable insights into the functioning of Parliament and with a rare look at the state of relations between the political parties that make up our parliamentary world. It is well worth getting up for every Thursday in the early morning darkness of this year’s wet and windy Cape winter.

Jan Jan Joubert

Last modified on Friday, 26 July 2019 18:08

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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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