YONELA DIKO: Mapisa-Nqakula can usher in a new chapter for Parliament
The rise of Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to the third most powerful position in the land has been greeted with great pessimism and suspicion by the opposition and some members of the public. Her critics find her politically tainted and morally compromised given some decisions she made in her past portfolio as Minister for Defence.
Mapisa-Nqakula is, her political foes assert, undeserving of elevation to the position of Speaker of the National Assembly, a move that makes her politically vulnerable to her party in an office that requires strict independence and fearlessness to hold the executive arm of her own party accountable. They also accuse her of sheer incompetence, given her miscalculation of the timing of military deployment in what turned out to be a security disaster that could have been avoided if given a greater sense urgency and being plugged into the pulse of communities. Her characterisation of the violence in its aftermath, directly opposed that of President Ramaphosa, did not help in presenting her as an anachronism who did not belong to the New Dawn.
Anyone who has been in politics as long as she has, having been given great responsibilities and held various positions in the ANC barely out of her 20s, should not be particularly moved by criticism and opposition, and has inevitably accumulated enough friends and foes and made enough mistakes to invoke extreme emotions from all corners of the country.
Each appointment, however, is always an opportunity to reinvent oneself and bend the horizon into new possibilities, and there is no better opportunity to do just this for her than being a Speaker of Parliament, akin to an empire sitting atop of our democracy.
THE MAKING OF MAPISA-NQAKULA
In many ways, Mapisa-Nqakula has been honing her skills as a political force since she was a young woman trying to find her own place in an ANC of larger-than-life comrades. Even then, she still managed to find her voice.
Like many young stars who show great potential, she found her ‘that young lady is going places’ moment at the ANC Kabwe Conference in 1985. She was just 29 years old. Despite many great moments at that conference - including Nelson Mandela's detailed letter from prison to Lusaka, Oliver Tambo's tale of his attempts to get Steve Biko out of the country assisted by Barney Pityana - still comrades remembered Mapisa-Nqakula, more so because she was so young and bold and not intimidated.
As is standard at an ANC conference, the old NEC must be officially disbanded to give way to the election of the new NEC. Indeed, as the old NEC was declared officially disbanded, the conference decided to adjourn for lunch before the new NEC was elected. As everyone was standing up preparing to leave the conference venue, Mapisa-Nqakula was a diminutive figure waving from the back trying to get leadership attention in the front. Tambo noticed her and asked everyone to remain in their seats so that she could speak.
Mapisa-Nqakula told the conference that it would be a mistake to adjourn the conference after the old NEC had been disbanded but before a new one was in place as this would leave a leadership vacuum, and if any important decision needed to be made urgently during the adjournment, there would be no leadership to make it. She said at least a president must be elected and then the conference could take its much-needed break. Tambo was pleasantly surprised and fully agreed with her, and of course, applause ensued. She had seen what no one else at the conference was able to.
What surprised many comrades was how easily she could have been intimidated and let the moment pass with all the dangers that were possible, given the eventful and fast-paced world of the mid-80s for the ANC. In a conference with the likes of Tambo himself, secretary general Alfred Nzo, Chris Hani, Dulcie September, Alex Laguma, Thabo Mbeki, Pallo Jordan, and the like, this young lady refused to be crippled by fear and self-doubt.
Mapisa-Nqakula would go on to be one of the women to prove themselves worthy and capable, excelling in military training no different to that of her male counterparts and would also master true political tactics that underpinned her training. She found herself in various military committees tasked with the very important work of preparing for that final day of confronting the enemy pound for pound in the capital.
Hers was not half measured dedication, she gave her soul to a possible victory for our people, even if it could take her own life.
SOLVING OTHER PEOPLE'S PROBLEMS
Along with the husband of her youth, Charles, Mapisa-Nqakula has always believed in the ANC's power to solve people’s problems and with state power, this was even more possible. This in a way, despite how unacceptable some of her actions have been, speaks to this nature of trying to solve other people's problems, even at the expense of her own.
Using her state-provided airplane as Minister for Defence to transport an ANC delegation to Zimbabwe was one such misguided act, aiding a party that is clearly financially stricken. Smuggling a girl into her plane out of a country led by a tinpot dictator was another act of sacrifice, misguided as it was, but not particularly about her own political advancement. Her decisions have been reckless, but not selfish.
Since then Mapisa-Nqakula has travelled the fine line between standing her ground and working with others, fully aware that the ultimate goal of being in the ANC and government is to use both these people’s institutions to solve people’s problems.
Mapisa-Nqakula also joined the ANC Women's League and quickly rose through its ranks, travelling the world and connecting with global women, representing not only the oppressed black women of Africa, but the interests of women in general. She has understood that the oppression and side-lining of women, and black women in particular, may be because of the general oppression of the black race, but it transcends that aspect. So much so that even within liberation movements and the black oppressed communities, women can still be reduced to just appendages of men, seen as only good for clerical work and cooking. She was adamant that this would not be the fate of women if she could help it. Bold and decisive, she fought along with others until the ANC made its own constitutional imperative that in all its structures, women must have 50% representation.
The women's league also went through its own age of turbulence, particularly around its then matriarch, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and this required most women’s league leaders to put aside their own personal feelings and affection for Madikizela-Mandela and put the interests of the organisation first. You could love Winnie and still accept that her leadership of the league had left much to be desired, especially around its finances, and support punitive measures. Mapisa-Nqakula discharged her duties then as secretary general of the league without fear or favour. This is going to come in handy now that she is a Speaker of Parliament, a job that daily requires you to be strictly neutral and put aside your own party feelings and loyalty and discharge your constitutional duties. She has been there and taken all the tough decisions.
Mapisa-Nqakula brings a great deal of learning and experience into this job, which makes her fit for purpose. The most critical quality of a Speaker is singular bravery, to protect the sanctity and independence of Parliament against a hostile executive and opposition parties who see Parliament as a weapon against the executive.
From the outset, the Speaker needs to ensure a proper balance between rights members enjoy under the act of Parliament called the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act, of 2004, and the power given to Parliament by the Constitution to makes its own rules and orders and to direct its own internal proceedings.
We have seen Parliament in a state of paralysis because its members feel privileged to do and say whatever they wish, unhindered by any rules of Parliament to which Parliament is constitutionally empowered to develop and enforce. A review of rules and how they can enable her to run a house of decorum and mutual respect and focused on its core mandate should be her immediate task. It is the duty of the Speaker to keep the house in order and calm, while trying her best to be fair during parliamentary discussions.
One of the cardinal sins some Speakers the world over make, in trying to present themselves as independent, is to become too sympathetic to the opposition or hostile to their own party. A Speaker does not need to be sympathetic either to the opposition or the executive, but must exercise strict neutrality.
Parliament as an institution has to function effectively and efficiently and in full capacity. Members must participate in debates, ask informed questions and introduce Private Member Bills in order to help solve the many challenges facing our people.
In many countries of the world, it has been proven that people rate the work their members of Parliament do in their constituencies much higher than the theatrics of the house. People want to see their MPs in their constituencies, listening to their problems, finding solutions, lobbying the executive and securing budgets for small developments.
Mapisa-Nqakula will build a lasting legacy if she can take Parliament where it's supposed to be, among the people and less on the self-serving microphones and cameras that give people an inflated sense of doing something valuable. She can, in the next chapter of her life, as Speaker, remind the nation that the Parliament of the people has not perished under the African sun.
Yonela Diko is the former spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on Twitter: @yonela_diko