South Africa

PARLIAMENTARY NOTEBOOK

From presidential Q&A catch-up to consultations over opposition wins on Secretary to Parliament

From presidential Q&A catch-up to consultations over opposition wins on Secretary to Parliament
Illustrative image | Sources: Speaker of the National Assembly, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais) | Xolile George. (Photo: Supplied)

If the machinations around Xolile George’s move from CEO of organised local government to Parliament’s top administrator post revealed anything to National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, it’s that Parliament is not like a ministry where a minister’s word is law.

The opposition is tjatjarig and insists on having a role to play in the national legislature given that it’s a multi-party institution representing the people’s elected representatives. 

And the governing ANC’s predilection for majoritarianism is blown, repeatedly.  

At Thursday’s programming committee, National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said she was “ambushed” a day earlier when the meeting with political leaders no longer had just two agenda items, but five. That included the motion of appointment of South African Local Government Association (Salga) CEO Xolile George as Secretary to Parliament from 1 June. 

Not so fast, opposition leaders had said, pointing out they had not been consulted, as is the practice. Concerns had remained around the salary and terms and conditions of employment of George, a well-connected ANC insider. And so, by agreement, the appointment motion was dropped from the Order Paper, pending consultations next Tuesday. 

“We will proceed with this matter on Wednesday in the House,” announced Mapisa-Nqakula, signalling George would indeed be the new Secretary to Parliament, even if not from 1 June. Wednesday is 1 June, and the House sits from 3pm.

Again, it was “not-so-fast” from the opposition. This time the chief whips and deputies raised concerns over salary structure and T&Cs that had not been shared. 

On 6 May when George was announced as the recommended candidate from 1 June, the official statement said, “Parliament and Salga will work out all the transitional modalities for the Secretary to Parliament designate”. 

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It remains unclear what, if anything, actually happened about such working out of transitional modalities — or whether that public announcement actually was a feint to put pressure on George to move.  

The job was readvertised with a max R2.6-million salary in late March when the Speaker acknowledged that her pledge of an appointment as from 1 April 2022 had fizzled. The process had stalled previously in 2021, shortly after George came out tops in interviews. 

As Salga CEO, he was earning R5.8-million, including performance bonuses, allowances, employer medical aid and retirement contributions, or a basic income of R4,453,939, according to the association’s 2020/21 annual report, the latest available. Even without the allowances, medical aid or retirement contributions, it would be more than a R1.8-million salary cut to the max R2,604,661 package Parliament offers. 

Discussions became terse at Thursday’s programming committee. 

“I will not allow for a situation where salaries packages of employees are discussed (here),” said Mapisa-Nqakula with reference to the programming committee being public. “If there is anything that needs to be discussed with regards to salary, it will be raised in the meeting of political party leaders (on Tuesday).”

 IFP Chief Whip Narend Singh said the salary Parliament could offer was set down. 

“The issue of salary is prescribed. And no one can work outside of that… If he is prepared to serve the nation within the permitted range that is not a problem.” 

Sensitivities about salaries are misplaced. If George takes the job — 1 June is procedurally and logistically out of reach — his salary package will be known by the end of September 2023, the latest Parliament’s 2022/23 annual report must be tabled. Executive salaries must be included in line with general accounting standards and other public finance prescripts.   

So lack of transparency and accountability on the salary now may boomerang later on. 

But perhaps it’s part of the case of ministerial SOPs that seem to creep into the national legislature, now that a former defence minister is calling the shots.  

Mapisa-Nqakula talks of herself as “executive authority”, or “EA”, and the ANC caucus is toeing the line. Executive authority, of course, is what ministers are known as. 

For the past 28 years, the Speaker has always been referred to as Speaker, even when the Speaker was an ex-deputy president and the ANC national chairperson at the time, Baleka Mbete. 

Decisions are made by the Speaker or the Office of the Speaker. Ditto, the NCOP and its boss, the Chairperson. Together they are the presiding officers who “exercise joint control and authority over the precinct on behalf of Parliament”, according to the 2004 Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act. 

While the 2009 Financial Management of Parliament Act that introduced executive authority defined as “the Speaker of the National Assembly and the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, acting jointly”, it was in juxtaposition to the administration accounting officer, the Secretary to Parliament. 

But today it’s all about the Executive Authority in Parliament. Even when George’s recommendation as the new Secretary to Parliament was announced to the programming committee on 19 May, Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli said, “The executive authority is now in a position to announce…” 

Coincidentally, like a deputy minister is DM, Tsenoli is now “DS”. It’s not just talk; the language used indicates a shift in attitude, mindset and institutional culture.  

Like the linguistic kowtowing over President Cyril Ramaphosa, and his accountability to the national legislature, never mind the rules. 

DA Deputy Chief Whip Siviwe Gwarube raised the matter of the missing presidential Q&A slot in contravention of parliamentary rules.  

Or as the Freedom Front Plus Chief Whip Corné  Mulder put it, “The rules are quite clear, the honourable President must appear in the House and answer questions once a quarter”. 

While ANC MPs scolded Gwarube for stepping out of procedural protocol to write to the Speaker, the governing ANC lawmakers argued Ramaphosa was already “appearing” in Parliament — twice for his two-day Budget vote debate in early June. 

Rule 140 is clear, “questions to the President must be scheduled… at least once per quarter…” It talks of questions, not appearances.  

“We will not dictate to the President when he is going to appear before the House after he indicated to us that his diary does not necessarily allow him…” said programming whip ANC MP Mina Lesoma.  

That only changed when non-DA opposition chief whips pointed out how former president Jacob Zuma was not allowed to sidestep the Q&As in the House, having to make up missed sessions. 

“We took serious issue when president Zuma (appeared) once per six months… We must not make that mistake to hold this president to a different standard because it is convenient,” said EFF Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu. “The appearance for the Budget vote even if he appears for seven days, this has nothing to do with him answering questions.” 

And United Democratic Movement (UDM) Chief Whip Nqabayomzi Kwankwa echoed this. “We were strict on President Zuma… We mustn’t have a different set of rules for President Ramaphosa.” 

Again, a “not-so-fast” from the opposition, as Gwarube’s intervention ensured that next term, Ramaphosa will have two question sessions in the House. It’ll be sometime after 16 August as Parliament goes into recess from mid-June. 

While Wednesday may bring some clarity on a new Secretary to Parliament, fixing and restoring the National Assembly wing — without a roof after the 2 January fire — remains a process. 

Almost five months later a report is yet to be submitted. Until that happens, nothing will happen, the Joint Standing Committee on the Financial Management of Parliament was told on Friday, 20 May. 

And so, no tarpaulin or cover on the roofless National Assembly from the Cape winter rains. DM

 

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