Mbete’s second stint brims with challenges

Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete is silent on presidential aspirations, writes Ryland Fisher

The office of the Speaker of Parliament has an unobstructed view of the president’s Cape Town office, Tuynhuys. From her desk, Baleka Mbete can look at Tuynhuys daily and contemplate what she would do if she occupied that position. But Mbete, who is also national ANC chairwoman, claims she has no such ambitions - at least for the moment.

Interviewed this week, Mbete said she “would not be trapped into answering that question” when asked about presidential ambitions.

“This is a question that means we will be reported to say things that we have never said. I am not willing to answer. It is only when the ANC opens that question up that we can all feel free to say anything along those lines.”

Which, if one has to read between lines, means “talk to me again next year when the ANC elective processes are under way”.

Her name has been mentioned as one of the people who could possibly take over from Jacob Zuma as president of the ANC, along with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and AU Commission chairwoman Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Mbete has reason to be circumspect because it is considered almost taboo in ANC circles to speak publicly about ambitions. ANC politicians talk about being “deployed” or “following the will of the branches”.

Asked whether it was not logical for her, having already been deputy president of the country, to aspire towards the number one position, she said: “We don’t do that.”

As a former general secretary of the ANC Women’s League, Mbete does not feel talk about the ANC possibly electing a woman president is “a big thing”.

“The ANC has always had opportunities through the ages, from its founding, because it had people of the calibre of Charlotte Maxeke, and over the years there have been many great women, like Ma (Albertina) Sisulu who presided over the UDF.

“But it is the culture. It is what people have been exposed to and what they have been socialised to accept as the norm. I don’t see what the big deal is because women are playing a role all over the place now. They are mayors, they are premiers, they are speakers.”

Asked what qualities the ANC president should have, she said s/he should be an “ANC cadre through and through”.

“If indeed, you are truly steeped in the traditions, history, policies, understanding of the culture of the ANC, then you are a true South African. That’s what you need for a president of the country. The values, the way you conduct yourself, must be informed by that, and therefore it should be a person who respects people, who respects everything about prioritising the needs of our people.”

Asked if she had those qualities, Mbete laughed: “No, I’m not saying I have those qualities.”

Mbete was more comfortable talking about Parliament and was in a surprisingly jovial mood when interviewed on Wednesday morning, after another day of drama in Parliament when the EFF and other opposition parties again tried to prevent the president from speaking.

Mbete feels it is unfair of opposition parties to accuse her of protecting the president, while the president has accused her of not protecting him adequately.

“I am maintaining order to the best of my ability and so do other presiding officers. It is not an easy thing. While the opposition feels that I should be, from the chair, part of their political games, the executive, in particular the president, are far from happy. As far as they are concerned, we should just in the first five minutes chuck out whoever in the opposition are targeting them.

“It is a very difficult position to be in. The president once told me that if he was the presiding officer, he would deal with the EFF within the first five minutes. I just said president, believe me, you don’t want to be a presiding officer’.”

It is easier said than done.

“They say I protect the president. The president is very unconvinced that I am protecting him. So I guess I will die in between the two knobkerries.”

This is the second time Mbete has occupied the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly. She was Speaker from 2004 to 2008 before becoming deputy president to Kgalema Motlanthe after the recall of Thabo Mbeki. She worked in Luthuli House after this and returned to Parliament after the elections in 2014.

She admits this time has been very different and difficult.

“I attribute it to developments in politics. The phenomenon of the particular organisation or party that had been created before the last elections is really the main factor that has ended up characterising the fifth Parliament as a real stormy one, as one that has those moment of eruptions of unusual and unfortunate behaviour and conduct by members of Parliament.

“When people look into Parliament, they just feel that this can’t be our Parliament. Indeed, it should not be, but it takes a lot more than our wishes... Some people think it is a big joke and that it makes Parliament interesting. I don’t believe so. I actually believe it does harm.

“We have been engaged by certain generations in society, especially elders, who have expressed great disappointment and anger.

She added: “Younger South Africans who are watching this drama begin to believe that this is the way to interact, this is how you make things interesting or how you assert yourself or raise your issues.

“There are a great deal of unfortunate developments in the fifth Parliament, but the mistake must never be made to think that those are the major moments, that all that happens in Parliament are those dramas. In actual fact, Parliament is about a whole lot more.

“It is about the work done in committees and our oversight role which involves inspecting on the ground whether our policies are changing people’s lives.”

Mbete said MPs had to learn respect. “What it will take is for all members of Parliament to agree that Parliament is a place where we express ourselves freely and honestly, but with respect. We must all be of the mind that Parliament must be a place where we must illustrate the best of what human beings can do together. “We should be able to illustrate that difference must not mean that we must be adversarial. Difference does not mean that we are enemies. Difference simply means that we have a different approach to various matters. We should try to conduct ourselves like we used to in the first four parliaments.

“What has unfortunately happened in the fifth Parliament is that we have arrived here and started to conduct ourselves as though we want to challenge the election results.

But she has hope for the future.

“Very soon the people of South Africa will realise that perhaps some of us ought not to be here or perhaps some of us must be persuaded to grow up and to conduct ourselves in a manner that is in keeping with the reality of the adult world.

“No less a leader than Nelson Mandela showed that you can conduct yourself decently with someone who is actually supposed to be your opponent, but who has support from whatever number of South Africans and therefore has a right to be there.”

Mbete dismissed criticism there was a conflict between her position as Speaker of the National Assembly and national chairwoman of the ANC, saying it was not the first time this had occurred.

(Mosiuoa Patrick Lekota, currently Cope president, was chairman of the NCOP from 1997 to 1999 when he was also chairman of the ANC.)

Mbete said there would always be conflict between creating a “people’s parliament” and creating a secure environment for those who work there. “The issue of the security of Parliament is not my issue. It is not an individual matter. South Africans will remember the images of May 2016, the last incident before we went to the elections, when the issue of the security of Parliament, including the whole issue of access and measures that other parliaments in the world utilise, came under the spotlight.

“Security is not a joke. It is an issue that, in fact, we would have preferred should not arise, because we have always believed in a people’s parliament and we are going to continue to believe in a people’s parliament, but it cannot be a people’s parliament at the expense of the people who work here and serve the people of South Africa.

“For instance, there are people who say that they don’t want their bags to be searched when they walk in and out of Parliament. We have to abandon that luxury because it has been found that members of Parliament have brought weapons into Parliament.

“When we sit here and somebody pulls out a gun and injures or kills someone, are we going to say Oh no, we were pursuing a people’s parliament’? Yes, we want a people’s parliament and people will have access to Parliament, but we will now be looking more closely at what are the dictates of the different needs in Parliament.

“We are going to do that which makes sense. We are going to take responsibility for everything, including the security of the people who work in Parliament.”

(First published in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 17 September 2016)

You can watch the full interview here.