The storm that is raging in the National Assembly shows no signs of abating. Hot on the heels of last Thursday night’s filibuster/police drama came Wednesday’s filibuster 2.0, including personal insults, racial subtext, and even the odd substantive idea. At the centre of this circular high pressure system sits speaker Baleka Mbete. Blamed by the commentariat for what happened last week, almost hated by opposition parties, and directly contradicted by the ANC’s chief whip Stone Sizani during the first filibuster debate, she is in the eye of the storm. So when she actually takes the time to grant an interview, you know it’s unlikely to be boring. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
As you walk through the corridors of the National Assembly, after wandering through a security checkpoint with what looked like a broken metal-detector (for those you worried terribly about the safety of our elected politicians, don’t fret, it is impossible to get through the security at the entrance to the precinct with anything vaguely threatening), the Office of the Speaker is, quite correctly, the biggest suite around. It is also much further away from the press gallery than the slightly less imposing Office of the Deputy Speaker.
Administration staff (and the inevitable posse of VIP bling) abound. All of them helpful, going out of their way to guide/escort/control a hapless hack who is relatively new to the place. It’s a busy week in Parliament, and the lengthy wait for the interview is completely understandable. Quite frankly, considering current circumstances, granting the interview in the first place was a very welcome move. But when it happens, it happens quickly. Ushered into a boardroom, and told “10 minutes, and Stephen, we really mean 10 minutes”, and Mbete herself arrives.
Some politicians are imposing, commanding almost, in their presence. They have an ability to make journalists cower before them. Others can be almost apolitical, especially if they’ve held high office for a long time. It’s usually in their own office, surrounded by the paraphernalia of their job, when that impression comes through. One imagines Frene Ginwala was like that, the kind of school marm for whom every little boy would make sure his bed was properly made in the dorm.
Mbete comes very close. She is, actually, very friendly; a quick handshake, a recognition that while we’ve never spoken one on one before there was once a press conference at which we met. “It was at Luthuli House,” she says (and indeed it was. I remember the unforgettable question, “Ma’am, have you heard that Floyd Shivambu has told a journalist, to um, um, “#$%*” off”?). And then, to business, the microphone goes on, the guard goes up.
“Is Parliament broken,” I ask. “No!” is her immediate response. “It can’t be broken, it can never be broken… It’s too important for that.”
In a 10-minute radio interview, there’s a certain pattern. You want an easy question or two to put your guest at ease, before you get into the hard stuff. When you get to the hard stuff you have certain options, hard and fast, or slightly gently, in the hopes that you actually get more. Framing a question matters.
I put it to her (Thanks, Mr Roux – Ed) that there had been more time for reflection after the police drama, and ask if she has any regrets. There are no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ about her answer. “There is nothing that I regret, Stephen, in terms of what I did personally. Because the House came to a point where the outrageous pronouncements from honorable members had reached a level of breaking every single protocol, every single rule of the house…”. Mbete absolutely knows her own mind on this; for her it’s clear there is no turning back.
The other big issue of course, the one that I, and so many other members of the commentariat have criticised, is that it is surely wrong to be both National Assembly speaker, and ANC chairwoman.
Her answer is a strong one. “My response to that is that is just politics, Stephen. I’ve been speaker here, and I’ve been chair after 2007. Yes, there were interviews, comments, but people got on with it. This time there has been so much loud news, it must just be a political thing.” She points out that Mosuia Lekota was once ANC chairman and chairman of the National Council of Provinces, and no one seemed to mind.
In a way, this is an echo of another strong answer brought by the ANC during Wednesday night’s debate about the distinct lack of a president in the National Assembly. That in 2004 Thabo Mbeki only came once, and no one seemed to mind then. It is also a manifestation of the mistakes of the opposition then, coming home to roost now. It shows, once again, that the ANC is not the party of caricature, but rather of clever, thinking, and yes, experienced politicians. It shows that it is not going to be on the back foot in the House forever.
For an interviewer, asking questions about a politician’s health is always slightly fraught. It is a hundred times worse when you have to ask a woman who is a generation older than you. It is, after all, none of my business. Except that it could be claimed the way she has behaved in the House lately is somehow the result of an illness she suffered over the Christmas period that required a helicopter to transport her to a military hospital. So you have a sort of duty to ask it, if just to give her the opportunity to respond.
In the end, as the sound of a watch being tapped gets louder, I remind her of those stories, and suggest that for most people both her jobs are full-time posts, and is she feeling any strain? Is is she, to put it another way, still enjoying her role. (You missed an ‘s’ there Stephen – Ed)?
Mbete is absolutely forthright in her response. “I am enjoying it, because for me, any task I am given to perform I will perform it to the fullest, and I am still there. And those who thought I was dying, I am on top of the world.”
Some people are born tough. Mbete is one of them. She is one of that slightly older breed of the ANC, someone who was tempered by the struggle. There is iron in her voice, in her stance, in her beliefs. She is, to use that terribly well worn, and now slightly sexist phrase, not for turning. DM
Photo: Parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete reads the resignation letter of South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki to the country’s Parliament in Cape Town September 22, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (SOUTH AFRICA)