The Speaker, Baleka Mbete, remains an ambivalent figure. Janet Smith talks to political scientist Professor Daryl Glaser about her role, her life in the ANC and what could happen next.
Janet Smith: How powerful is the position of Speaker? It’s important not to forget that, in the event of President Jacob Zuma or Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa not being available, the Speaker, in this case Baleka Mbete, would have to act as president until the National Assembly designated another member.
Daryl Glaser: That’s absolutely right. She would have to act as president.
The Speaker is an extremely powerful position in Parliament, because of the role she has in regular parliamentary debate and also because of the constitutional role the Speaker has.
There’s always a great importance that attaches to the position, which is one we would normally expect to be held by someone who commands widespread respect. On the whole, the previous Speakers were able to do that.
Baleka Mbete has been the most controversial of the Speakers so far, but this is partly also because she has had the most difficult circumstances to deal with.
Her election was contested, though. I think she started off already as someone seen as partisan because of her position as chairperson of the ANC.
This could certainly be seen as a conflict, but it’s not unusual in the world. In the British House of Commons, there’s the same phenomenon. It’s also the same thing in the US Senate, where the Speaker is a partisan figure.
The important thing is that the person chosen should not be particularly controversial or high up in their party hierarchy. They should rather be someone who has some history as someone who wants to build cross-party relationships and has an affinity for the functioning of Parliament.
The person who becomes Speaker has to put on a different hat and largely put aside party political commitments to be able to fulfil this important role. There should always be this dividing line.
A properly chosen Speaker should attempt to separate themselves from the day-to-day political fray. I don’t, for instance, think a Speaker should be talking about “dealing with irritants”, as Mbete did last week.
JS: Although Mbete’s conduct as Speaker has been widely criticised from outside her party and by civil society, only the ANC can remove her. But is there any provision for punitive measures against her should she transgress her functions?
DG: The whole atmosphere around the Speaker is based on trust and constitutional conventions.
The assumption is that the Speaker will take a certain sense of responsibility to Parliament and therefore the country, and is not going to display a sense of frustration, and so on. I suspect in many parliaments around the world, the dominant political party would be very careful not to put a person who can’t contain those sorts of emotions in the job. It would only attract unnecessary controversy.
But the ANC has a large enough majority to enable her to act with a certain impunity. However, if political change comes, that could also change the behaviour of the Speaker.
It’s interesting. On the one hand, Zuma has entrenched himself very well in the top position, surrounded by loyalists. So his position is quite comfortable. On the other hand, I think there are serious problems for the ANC in Gauteng and Nelson Mandela Bay, and those metros could administer a shock to the system in next year’s municipal elections.
That would threaten this kind of impunity. Well, it’s a combination of arrogance and impunity, but also hypersensitivity and paranoia about losing ground in the next election.
We should also draw some comfort from the push-back of opposition parties. Zuma might not look perturbed, but he still had to listen to some serious criticism.
The ANC is going to be challenged in the future again by the EFF because it has an agenda to disrupt, so the ANC needs some sophisticated thinking. If it carries on dealing with the EFF the way it did, the consequences will be dire.
You can have the one-off spectacle of MPs being removed, but if this happens repeatedly, it’s going to do serious damage.
So the ANC will certainly have to take more seriously the role of the Speaker from now on.
JS: How important is Mbete in the party itself? We know she was effectively the bridesmaid to Kgalema Motlanthe after Thabo Mbeki was recalled by the ANC in 2007, and there is talk from time to time that she is still a contender for president, especially if the ANC is serious about appointing a woman. How much of a role does Mbete’s history, and the ANC’s history, play in the recent events in Parliament?
DG: I think Mbete is taken seriously as a leading contender in the ANC, but I think she has probably suffered some damage from her behaviour as Speaker.
If one assumes the ANC has some basic strategic sophistication, it would be very risky to elect her as the president, although I suppose we don’t know how much of what’s gone on in Parliament recently will remain in the mind in a few years’ time.
But there’s also the tragedy of someone like Mbete, a long-standing, dedicated activist who made all sorts of sacrifices, that once they got seduced by power and access to resources post-1994, they ensured that their lasting legacy was a tarnished reputation. It’s a story we’ve seen again and again.
The ANC and the EFF are in many ways cut from the same cloth. Both have a political culture filled with the language of aggression and a polemical style of dealing with people. There’s also a history of a willingness to sacrifice people and resort to violence.
I talked about the sacrifices people made in exile, but there was also a lot of romanticising, a glorification of militarism. There were status hierarchies and, even then, some access to resources. So this current conflict has precursors in exile, but obviously taking control of a modern state gave the returning elite access to enormous temptation.
Zuma himself exemplified both sides of the exile experience. On the one hand, you have a person of considerable courage, but his high position in the intelligence hierarchy also created a reasonable suspicion that he knows things about many people inside and now outside the ANC which he could hold against them. Zuma has built a group of securocrats around him.
JS: There was concern that the previous Speaker, Max Sisulu, might have a slight weakness around protecting his sister Lindiwe during some debates, but what kind of Speaker do you think he made? How do you think he would have handled recent events?
DG: I suppose you could say that Frene Ginwala commanded a widespread respect. She was seen as one of the great and good. Max Sisulu didn’t have such a distinctive identity, but he was a respected member of the ANC’s royalty.
But, just to reiterate, no one could have anticipated a situation like this for a future Speaker. Not long ago, the DA and other opposition parties generally behaved themselves, and there was a willingness to accept the role of the Speaker. But now, the EFF has created a competitive grandstanding process among political parties which want to avert the danger of being eclipsed. And so Mbete, unlike Sisulu, is faced with two obstreperous opposition parties.
My instinct tells me Ginwala and Sisulu would have dealt with this better than Mbete, though. The impression has become stronger and stronger that she is something of a vindictive person, a party hack.
JS: Who do you think would make a good Speaker, under the current political circumstances? Is Mbete’s deputy Lechesa Tsenoli up to the task, for example?
DG: He doesn’t have as much baggage as Mbete, but I think the best people for the job are probably to be found among those who have already gone into retirement. Someone like Ahmed Kathrada who would have performed that role very well.
The point here is that we need to have strong institutions, so that even if we have a bad leader, something can be done. At the same time, the ANC’s position is unprecedented in any democratic system. It’s unusual for a political party to stay above 60 percent in successive elections, so the ANC has not yet been put to the test.
* Daryl Glaser is associate professor of politics and head of the politics department at Wits.
** Janet Smith is executive editor of The Star.