South Africa


Speaker Modise’s surprise move is good for Department of Defence, but a blow for Parliament

Speaker Thandi Modise. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise being appointed as defence minister has removed from Parliament a well-respected presiding officer, credited with restoring stability to the national legislature.

It was the curveball in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet reshuffle on Thursday evening. And while National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise’s move to head defence was widely welcomed, it also caught many unawares. 

Looking back at Thursday, perhaps an indication of what was to come was that Modise had sent her apologies to the National Assembly programme she usually chairs. 

Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli stepped in then, as he will be stepping in as acting speaker now. 

The parliamentary process is straightforward once lawmakers return from constituency recess by 18 August. While that week is set aside for committee meetings, nothing stops the scheduling of the sitting that is required to elect a new speaker in line with Section 52 of the Constitution. 

What is not so straightforward and is steeped in politics – mostly ANC factional politicking – will be deciding on the new speaker. It has to be an MP, and with the ANC having the majority of seats, or 230 out of 400, the party effectively determines the next incumbent.

This decision will entail discussions at Luthuli House, and within a parliamentary ANC caucus where not everyone was supportive of Modise. 

A quick fix could be to nominate Tsenoli as speaker until the next elections in 2024. 

Or ANC Chief Whip Pemmy Majodina, who came to Parliament on the CR17 ticket, could make her play. Majodina has played parliamentary power politics that has seen her clash with Modise and others in the parliamentary leadership. 

But the door may be open for the outgoing defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, to become speaker, effectively doing a swap with Modise. It’s in that presidential phrasing: “Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula will be deployed to a new position, and we thank her for service to the nation and dedication to her responsibilities.” 

Unlike say an ambassador, or envoy, Ramaphosa can’t announce a speaker because that’s an elected position from the National Assembly. As things stand now, Mapisa-Nqakula qualifies for nomination as speaker as she remains an MP, and has served as ANC chief whip, even if that was 20 years ago. 

Mapisa-Nqakula was spared the humiliation of her sacking being officially announced while she was briefing Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence. The committee adjourned proceedings an hour and 15 minutes ahead of schedule at 7.44pm. 

“We support the president and yourself, Minister; there being no other issues, it’s now incumbent on me to thank you and adjourn the meeting,” said ANC MP Cyril Xaba, the committee chairperson, after a briefing on the SADC deployment to Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region, which is unsettled by armed militants. 

Despite presidential talk of deployment to a new position, Mapisa-Nqakula’s future is vague. 

With Thursday’s reshuffle three committee chairpersons posts have become vacant – social development, as incumbent Mondli Gungubele was appointed as Minister in the Presidency, and Philly Mapulane,  the parliamentary higher education chairperson, appointed as deputy minister for Communications and Digital Technologies and health committee chairperson Sibongiseni Dhlomo is now deputy health minister. 

Two other ANC backbenchers, Nobuhle Nkabane and Chana Pilane-Majake, were appointed as deputy ministers respectively for Mineral Resources and Energy and Public Service and Administration.

Modise has straddled legislative and executive offices. She was sworn in as MP in 1994 and served also on the defence committee. Sent to North West as speaker in 2004, Modise became North West premier from 2010 to 2014, but then returned to Parliament as chairperson of the National Council of Provinces. 

After the May 2019 elections she was elected as speaker in a move widely appreciated after a destabilising five years when the EFF rattled the National Assembly with protests such as, “Pay back the money”, the call on then-president Jacob Zuma to pay for the security upgrades at his Nkandla homestead as the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela had ordered. 

Modise in no small measure brought back discipline to proceedings, and argued for Parliament to take up people’s issues in a more effective manner and to do oversight better, including using parliamentary powers to amend or even veto departmental budgets. 

During her testimony before the State Capture Commission in April, Modise apologised for Parliament’s lukewarm oversight responses after the first Gupta corruption and State Capture reports emerged as far back as 2011. 

It is regrettable that the impression is Parliament only woke up when things were really bad. For that we must apologise to the South African people,” Modise told Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo

On Thursday IFP Chief Whip Narend Singh said Modise’s appointment to defence was a “loss” to Parliament. “She’s really done a good job as speaker. She’s run a tight ship; she’s called a spade a spade.” 

Freedom Front Plus Chief Whip Corné Mulder said while Modise was a good appointment in defence – “she’s a real military veteran” – it was sad for Parliament. 

“She was the one that succeeded in bringing order to Parliament. She was the one that succeeded to bring back some form of respect back to Parliament. She was the one who was able to control the EFF in their attempts to disrupt proceedings.” 

DA Chief Whip Natasha Mazzone said Modise would be missed as a fair Speaker. “She did what we thought was impossible. She was starting to restore dignity to the House. She always had an open-door policy and really did approach matters in a non-partisan manner. She is a soldier, and we need her expertise now in Defense, but she will be missed as the ‘UN peacekeeping force’ in the Chamber”.

The ANC parliamentary caucus indicated it welcomed and supported the presidential announcement. 

United Democratic Movement (UDM) leader Bantu Holomisa may have questioned the continuation of certain ministers, particularly police and education, but he was delighted at Modise’s appointment as defence minister. “She’s good. She’s not corrupt. She’s a no-nonsense-taker”. 

And while he did not want to be drawn on who may replace her as presiding officer, Holomisa said there were “plenty of ANC backbenchers, who are well educated, who had been sidelined because of the factions” from which a speaker nominee could be chosen. 

The next few days and weeks will be key to answering that question. DM


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All Comments 6

  • Even if the courts had to find Modise not guilty of animal cruelty due to lack of evidence, the animal farm story of neglect to a point that the animals were eating each other because Modise failed to pay the care taker, is deeply concerning.

  • A pity the president didn’t use this opportunity to bring in expertise from other opposition parties instead of shuffling mediocre cadres. It seems the political game played by the ANC makes it impossible to appoint deserving people into, especially, critical ministries. Good politicians don’t necessarily make good ministers. And surely, ministers tarnished by corruption charges should be fired not redeployed or better still charged in court

  • I cannot believe that Sibongiseni Dhlomo has been promoted. This man presided over the collapse of the health department here in KwaZulu-Natal and the unfortunate handling of the government take-over of the historic McCords Hospital. Further scandals include the mismanagement and wasteful expenditure of state funds while flying around in state-owned helicopters for his own private business. Argh no man!

  • Obviously Modise is one who Cyril could trust implicitly in this critical position. African coup d’etats always have rogue generals and a clued up minister can prevent that. We all remember the pig farm for humanitarian reasons but no corruption implications like the rest of the bunch.

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