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From Our Archives – National Assembly Speaker post may be a negotiation tool — if a coalition is required after May poll

From Our Archives – National Assembly Speaker post may be a negotiation tool — if a coalition is required after May poll
National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete in Parliament, 5 April 2016. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Esa Alexander) I Frene Ginwala was the first Speaker of the National Assembly of democratic South Africa from 1994 to 2004. (Photo: Yunus Mohamed / Media 24 / Gallo Images) I Speaker of the National Assembly Max Sisulu in Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 21 August 2012. (Photo: Michael Hammond / Foto24 / Gallo Images)

When word on the parliamentary grapevine had EFF Deputy President Floyd Shivambu becoming National Assembly Speaker, many were dumbfounded. But this brought home the potential pitfalls of coalition-making — if required — after the 29 May elections.

The Speaker’s post could be used as a bargaining chip should a coalition be the post-poll reality, but few if any of the incoming parliamentarians are natural selections for the position. 

However, the ANC is unlikely to give up the Speaker’s post unless its hand is forced by the outcome of the 29 May vote. It’s a powerful position, which sets the tone, direction, work and scruples of Parliament. The Constitution stipulates that Parliament must oversee and hold to account all organs of state. That’s aside from lawmaking. 

When asked to name the Speakers of the highest standing, most people would list the late Frene Ginwala and Max Sisulu. Both were nonpartisan in presiding in the House and running Parliament. Both understood the national legislature was a multiparty institution that required cooperation — regardless of political views and majoritarian tendencies — to work effectively in the interest of the people, not the political elite. 

Since 1994, the ANC has retained the Speaker’s post, effectively the head of the legislative sphere of state, like the Chief Justice heads the judiciary and the President the executive. With remuneration pegged at the same level as that of the Deputy President, it is an attractive offering. As one of the two presiding officers established in the Constitution, the National Assembly Speaker has the edge, as the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) chairperson is dependent on provincial dynamics and pace. 

Only ex-deputy president Baleka Mbete doubled up state and party — she was ANC national chairperson and National Assembly Speaker from 2014 to 2017, before leaving Parliament after the 2019 elections. The ANC’s Speakers are part of its Political Committee, which is key to translating party policy to governance, and its National Executive Committee, the party’s highest decision-making structure between conferences. 

Sign of desperation

If the 29 May elections produce a result that requires the ANC to form a coalition, the post of National Assembly Speaker could be crucial. Were the ANC to let go of this post, it would signal a desperation to retain power. 

More comfortable for the ANC would be negotiations for the posts of House chairperson — these included opposition MPs until the Jacob Zuma administration — and committee chairpersonships. Traditionally, only the chairpersonship of the public spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, is held by an opposition MP.  

The extent of coalition negotiations and whether the Speaker’s post is in the mix depends on how short the ANC is of a majority. The negotiating scope would differ if the ANC came in at 160 seats on the back of 40% voting support at the hustings, or 188 seats on the back of 47%.  

Missing, say, 13 seats for a 201 majority in the 400-strong House, and thus a governing majority, could involve a collection of one- and two-seat parties like Al Jama-ah, African Independent Congress or the National Freedom Party, should these return to the parliamentary benches. In this case, the ANC would not give up the Speaker’s post. House chairpersonships that supervise committees, but also internal arrangements and international relations, and committee chairperson posts could well be sufficient to ensure an ANC-led Parliament, Cabinet and executive. 

If it’s a case of the ANC falling short of 41 seats for a governing majority, it becomes more tricky. If putting up the Deputy Speaker’s post, or the NCOP chairpersonship, fails to be attractive to other parties in the coalition negotiations, the ANC could have its arm twisted to relinquish the Speaker’s post. 

This would be a last-ditch concession in a bid to hold on to power, but also a key bargaining chip in broader negotiations to elicit compromises from others. For example, the EFF could get the Speaker’s post for giving up a claim to the finance ministry, or another portfolio the ANC would prefer to retain, such as defence or policing. The IFP could get the Speaker’s post — and the KwaZulu-Natal premiership — in what that party has already described as a government of national unity. 

Possible candidates

An emerging concern for governance under the Constitution is the available choices for Speaker candidates across political party election candidate lists. 

If an ANC-EFF coalition is agreed upon not only in Gauteng, but also nationally, aside from Shivambu, EFF MP Hlengiwe Mkhaliphi may be a candidate for National Assembly Speaker, given she serves in committees relating to Parliament’s running. 

If what unfolds is an ANC-DA coalition — word of informal outreach has been denied all round — would DA Chief Whip Siviwe Gwarube be put forward? Or would Freedom Front Plus Chief Whip Corné Mulder accept the post in a broader arrangement? 

In an ANC-IFP coalition, if the Speaker’s post is up for grabs, IFP Chief Whip Narend Singh may be an option, or if youth is a criterion, IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa’s name could be put forward. 

If the ANC emerges as the majority party again, it won’t give up the Speaker’s post, but must face internal computations. Current House Chairperson Cedric Frolick, who was rumoured to be up for Deputy Speaker, could be considered for Speaker. Should current ANC Chief Whip Pemmy Majodina again miss out on a place in the Cabinet, would she accept the Speaker’s position? 

However, the ANC may well decide to go with a curveball in recognition of party service and loyalty in the factional battles; the Speaker’s post could go to someone like former Limpopo premier Stan Mathabatha. It would not be unlike the ANC. 

Permutations are aplenty — from a coalition led by the ANC or the opposition to an ANC majority of some type. Pundits’ predictions of the ANC dipping below 50% on 29 May are not a given. Polling is seldom more than a snapshot of a particular moment. On the day, voter turnout is key, and the ANC has a history of kicking up enthusiasm on the last stretch of the campaign trail. 

The election outcome determines the next steps — whether coalition negotiations are required and if so, their character and make-up. After the outcome is announced, politicians have 14 days to stitch up a deal, if required, under the Constitution, before the National Assembly must sit to elect a President. DM


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