Security in Parliament for MPs' safety

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

African Christian Democratic Party leader Reverend Kenneth Meshoe is one of many Members of Parliament who have laid a complaint regarding safety in the National Assembly.

Meshoe told the Speaker Baleka Mbete that the clashes between MPs and Parliament’s security personnel, which have blemished  Parliament’s joint sitting sessions in recent years, left him feeling concerned about his safety.

“Members from different parties have raised very sharply their concerns on security. Reverend Meshoe raised the point that for the first time since he’s been Parliament, he was afraid for his safety,” Mbete said this week.

She was speaking at a workshop hosted by Parliament in Johannesburg to educate members of the media on the rules that govern Parliamenary sittings. 

“The issues of stepping up security, or re-looking how secure Parliament is, are not necessarily about preparing for [the State of the Nation Address], they are issues that come up on an ongoing basis,” Mbete said.

With a joint sitting of Parliament due to be called in a couple of days for this year’s State of the Nation Address, the issue of disruptions in the National Assembly and contestation over rules of the House will again be in the spotlight.

In 2015, all Members of Parliament adopted new rules and agreed that Parliament should never be adjourned due to unruly members unless absolutely necessary. Committee members also agreed that proceedings in Parliament could be suspended until the disruptions were dealt with.

Points of order

One of the rules, which appears to be a major bone of contention, is around the raising of the points of order and points of privilege. Mbete suggested that, at times, there has been a feeling that some members tended to abuse this rule.

According to the latest edition of the National Assembly rules, a member may raise a point of order at any time during the proceedings of the House by stating that he or she is rising on a point of order.

The rules emphasise that a point of order must be confined only to a matter of Parliamentary procedure or practice, or a matter relating to unParliamentary conduct, as defined, and must be raised immediately when the alleged breach of order occurs.

The member raising the point of order must commence by quoting the exact rule or standing order, or at least the principle or subject matter, upon which the point of order is based. The presiding officer must give a ruling, and may give his or her ruling or decision on the point of order immediately, or defer the decision to the earliest opportunity thereafter by way of a considered ruling.

As presiding officers, Mbete, together with the National Council of Provinces Chairperson Thandi Modise, have at times come under criticism for the manner in which they had handled some of the cases where MPs had to be ejected from the house for various reasons. 

Although the rules of Parliament allow for security personnel to be called in to deal with the issues that arise between political parties, concerns have been raised about the presence of security personnel inside the House.

But Mbete and Modise have defended their actions and decisions, adding that their job is to maintain the decorum of Parliament and ensure that every member adheres to the rule. The rules, they say, are there to protect all Members of Parliament from all the parties.

“As politicians, we have our differences, as a presiding officer, I must most of the times tell myself I must forget the colours that I see on the National Assembly floor and remember the people of South Africa that those political parties represent. We have tried to do our best but of course not all the time we get it right and there is room for improvement,” Modise said.

Due to the fact that presiding officers are members of a political party, they have also been accused of being biased in applying the rules of Parliament. This is a claim Modise has dismissed.

“I have angered members of my political party in the NCOP and in the National Assembly because I try to be as honest as possible in my finding and rulings. My belief is that once we focus on the people who have elected us, the people of South Africa, you forget that you are dealing with political parties, you only hear the voices that represent a segment of the question that could be asked by an MP,” said Modise.

“What we are insisting on is that people can be able to put their views forward, following the rules and without being disruptive. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t. At all times, presiding officers must try to be as accommodative as possible and also MPs must be able to be accommodative of all the divergent views,” she said.

For her part, Mbete is adamant she has always stuck to the rules.

“Every House has rules. Even in your own house there are rules. You teach your children rules. You teach them that they should knock when they enter your bedroom for example. So Parliament also has rules to follow,” she said.

What should happen in an event of disruptions

The rules state that the presiding officer may interrupt, suspend or adjourn the proceedings of the House. The presiding officer may further, in consultation with the Leader of Government Business, adjourn the House until a Parliamentary working day other than the next scheduled sitting day as determined by the Programme Committee provided that during such adjournment the Speaker may accelerate or postpone the date for the resumption of business.

Mbete and Modise this week also met with the leadership of the South African National Editors Forum to iron out any concerns the media representatives may have around the upcommimg State of the Nation Address. –

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