27 May 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
|Baleka Mbete, national chairwoman of the ANC|
ONE of the bitchiest pieces of repartee in show business, between the acclaimed lyricist of My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner, and musical supremo Andrew Lloyd Webber apparently went along the following lines: "Alan, why do people always take an instant dislike to me?" asked Lloyd Webber. "Saves time," Lerner responded.
Perhaps the fact that Baleka Mbete has a beautiful singing voice brought this conversation to mind on hearing of her recall last week to the speaker’s chair in Parliament. But more in point is that it will certainly save time and distance to bring the writ and fist of the African National Congress (ANC) and its Luthuli House headquarters to Parliament rather than the other way around.
Towards the end of the recent elections, it was reported — and not denied — that departing speaker Max Sisulu, a person of considerable standing and experience and of some independence, was "summonsed" to Luthuli House to "explain himself" in regard to his acquiescence to an opposition request that an ad hoc committee be appointed to determine Parliament’s response to the public protector’s report on Nkandla.
According to the constitution, the National Assembly over which the speaker presides is charged with "providing a national forum for public consideration of issues" and "scrutinising and overseeing executive action".
Yet Mbete is deeply conflicted from the start: she intends to be both national chairwoman of the ANC and speaker of the National Assembly. In the new Parliament, more than a dozen non-ANC parties seek the protection of the speaker to advance their interests and rights and to hold the very executive, of whose inner councils she is such a leading member, to account. Don’t expect too much scrutiny and oversight on her watch.
But then, for Mbete, this is all rather familiar territory. Before she had risen to the very apex of power in the ruling party, she presided as speaker of Parliament from 2004 until 2008. Yet, ironically, although Mbete joined in the party firing squad that politically assassinated Thabo Mbeki, she also helped his presidency close down Parliament as a centre of rigorous political contestation and scrutinising the executive.
I recall, in the first iteration of Mbete’s speakership, that she was summoned to the post as a sudden and unexplained replacement for the serving speaker, Frene Ginwala. Ginwala had provided Parliament with some lustre, and aside from her involvement in the parliamentary cover-up of the arms deal scandal, proved to be fairly independent. She later advised that she first heard of her axing on the radio, en route to a caucus meeting.
Helen Suzman, described by the man after whom the ANC headquarters are named, Chief Albert Luthuli, as "a bright star in a dark chamber", recalled that her impressive solo performance in the apartheid Parliament was made possible only by the impeccable behaviour and protection she received from the arch-conservative speaker, Henning Klopper. As she put it: "Our political convictions were miles apart. (But) he used to say to me at the beginning of each session: ‘I don’t agree with a word you say, Helen, but it is your right to say it and it is my duty to see that you enjoy that right’ — and he certainly did!"
Ironically, although there are now 88 more voices in Parliament echoing some of the sentiments once articulated alone by Suzman, they should not, all these decades later and even under a democratic constitution, expect such consideration as she enjoyed.
Two clues, of many that Mbete’s previous speakership salted back then, are hardly encouraging for the new Parliament. In September 2007, the nation was transfixed on the state of, and circumstances surrounding, the new liver acquired by then health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. The Sunday Times then revealed that she had been convicted of theft in 1976 while employed at a hospital in Botswana. An intrepid parliamentary colleague, Mike Waters, asked a written parliamentary question: had she ever disclosed this conviction to Mbeki? Less than an hour before the question was due to be answered in Parliament, Waters received a call from Mbete’s office advising him that the speaker had ruled the question "out of order" for containing "offensive and unbecoming language" in transgression of Parliament’s rules. When Waters stood up in Parliament to protest that the speaker was "covering up for a thief", he was suspended for five days from the house.
But it was also during Mbete’s first speakership that thievery caught hold of Parliament itself, which was defrauded of more than R36m of public money, when hundreds of MPs were investigated in the "Travelgate" scandal. In contrast with the speed with which Mbete acted against Waters, the investigation of this great stain on her watch was characterised by foot-dragging and worse.
If past performance is any guide in these matters to future conduct, diminished expectations are in order for the new Parliament.
• Leon is the author of Opposite Mandela (Jonathan Ball) Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA