Parliament ready for SONA, says Speaker

Tuesday, February 9, 2016
Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete

On Thursday, President Zuma will deliver the annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) to millions of South Africans. And according to Parliament, it’s all systems go for the big day.

SAnews.gov.za caught up with Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete to discuss, among others, the preparations leading up to the SONA and activities on the day. 

Mbete has been in Parliament since the dawn of democracy in 1994. Previously, she was Speaker of the National Assembly, from 2004 to 2008, before she returned to the post after the May 2014 elections. One can argue that Mbete knows parliament like the back of her hand.

As usual, before the President walks into the National Assembly at 7pm on Thursday, several traditions – such as the red carpet for Members of Parliament, the parades by the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) and the festivities, such as children dancing along the path leading to the stairs of the House – will be observed.

Prior to the President’s arrival, the three arms of the State –  the Legislature, the Executive and  the Judicial - from across all spheres – will walk up to take their places in the National Assembly.

After the President arrives, he will greet prominent persons before observing a 21 gun salute, ahead of delivering his much anticipated speech to the nation.

While the procession of the three arms of the State was significant in terms of representing the constituency of the voters, Speaker Mbete says the other ceremonial activities were mainly what used to be referred to in the past as the “pomp and ceremony”, “where you have the horses, the scooters and all the paraphernalia and that is more decorative really, more ceremonial as having been inherited from the British system”. 

“But for us, the emphasis is on the elements of the state and the unity that then is in fact shown on this particular occasion because you do have your three arms of the state and in fact the head of the state who then heads all three does not address the nation as the head of the executive, he addresses as the head of state,” she says.

She says the event in its entirety was a very important day for the nation, and that Parliament ensures that other organs of the state – from Chapter Nine institutions to business, labour formations and traditional leader representatives – are invited.

“It is a very, very beautiful day for South Africa -  for South Africa to actually celebrate itself, celebrate our ability to have reached a moment where we could start to form this nation in the making because we continue to [build] this nation. It is not yet a finite product; it is something that we are continuing to mould. We are learning lessons from our own experience; we are copying models from elsewhere,” she says.

Sanctity of Parliament

During the interview, Mbete also highlights that one of the most important roles in the execution of her duties is to ensure that the sanctity that parliament chambers have been known for, prevails. Mbete says South Africans who voted the current government into power have the right to be afforded the opportunity to listen to the speech without unnecessary disruptions.

“When you talk about the sanctity of Parliament, you are actually taking the issue right back to who in fact is the boss of the Parliamentarians that are here.

“You are taking the issue back to those people that have determined who is here, that have determined what are the issues that are a priority of this institution.

“The sanctity is the sanctity of those who went and cast their vote during the recent elections that is a very serious activity, that exercise of casting a vote.

“It is an exercise that is at the core of democratic dispensation, democratic process, that which in fact instructs and determines who leads, what are the issues that are the principles that underpin our democracy,” she says.

The Speaker was commenting on the trend that has emerged in the National Assembly, where members of Parliament from the opposition benches, have had to be removed from Parliament, for their alleged failure to observe National Assembly rules that govern the conduct of MPs. This first emerged when President Jacob Zuma delivered his State of the Nation Address, last year.

This trend, the Speaker said, was no laughing matter, and said these disruptions were, at the very least, undemocratic.

“How do you think this adds to that which is positive and that which we are trying to build as South Africans, moulding a particular type of democracy, including Parliamentary democracy.

“I think it is a question that is not for one functionary of Parliament, for one office bearer who might be chairing, who might be presiding at a particular moment.

The Speaker says after being forced to implement the rules of Parliament ever since the un-parliamentary behaviour emerged in recent times, a group of clergymen paid presiding officers a visit last year, where they complained against what they called the securitisation of Parliament.

She says after the men of the cloth took a more confrontational approach to the leadership of Parliament in the meeting, she responded to their questions by asking them a question.

“My take on the matter of the sanctity is that it is a matter for me that in fact I am glad we are focussing on, because I think South Africans have taken the easy way out in the past when it comes to the disruptions that have happened in 2014 and 2015.

“I think the tendency was for South Africans to be amused, to be entertained, to be comfortable with it being a big laughing matter and a joking matter, and yes it is human to want to be entertained.

“….I remember us receiving a group of clergymen, not the ones that came to Parliament last year in the beginning of the year, but in another platform, who in a litany, in a list of things that they put on the table, more kind of accusatory approach to leadership they were meeting.

“They referred to the securitization of Parliament, so it was something that was being thrown like a brick in our face.

“I answered in a form of a question, and [asked if it] was fine for all of us in society to find this huge amusement, this big entertainment, to say now here is a group of people who have made Parliament alive.

“As it continues, what is your answer as a responsible adult? What is your answer as a responsible citizen?

“So, disruption is about being anti-democratic. Disruption is about disrespect, including disrespecting the electorate, because people out there have a right to hear what this head of state has to say because the issues about which he is going to formulate the state of the nation are issues that are directly about their lives, about their daily lives, an extent of response by government in line with the things that they cast their vote for a particular manifesto,” the Speaker says.  

Rules

The Speaker said there was a rule that was expedited in the middle of 2015 as Parliament prepared to host President Zuma for a scheduled question and answer session. She said Parliament also adopted joint rules at the end of the year following a meeting that took place during the strike by Parliament employees.

“I know that lately there is a confusion because we are going to adopt the old rules book, which we will do immediately after the State of the Nation Address and the debate.

“But what has happened is that we do have the mechanisms adopted in the process of those that were adopted last year that enable us to deal with disruptions,” she says.

Condolences

Meanwhile, the Speaker has expressed her condolences on the passing of Godfrey Cleinwerck, the National Assembly’s first Sergeant-at-Arms of the democratic Parliament.

Cleinwerck retired in January 2011, after 16 years as Sergeant-at-Arms.

During this time, he announced former President Nelson Mandela’s first entry into the Chamber in 1994.

In 1999, he again announced his procession out of the Chamber upon his retirement.

“I have fond memories of him as a gentleman, as a gentle soul. I have memories of him being a very well-mannered person when he was talking to you, when he was interacting with you…” – SAnews.gov.za

 

 

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