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23 June 2017 20:57 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

SONA: Can the EFF be prevented from questioning the president?

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

The State of the Nation Address (SONA) – usually no more than a dry, uninspiring and pompous event showcasing the wealth, power and tawdry glamour of politicians – has this year taken on a sharply different meaning. This is due to vague threats by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to disrupt the event. Can the Speaker prevent EFF MPs from carrying out their threat? If so, what legal basis is there for preventing EFF MPs from asking the president questions he had failed to answer when he last appeared in Parliament?

It is unclear why so much attention (and money) is lavished on the president’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) every year. Speeches delivered by politicians seldom have a direct impact on the lives of voters. Speeches do not put food on the table of the hungry or provide shelter from the elements for the homeless.

Perhaps politicians, media elites and the punditocracy pretend that such speeches really matter more than they actually do to bolster their own sense of (self)-importance. They can tell the rest of us that only they have the tools to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the speech and know how the speech will affect our lives.

Although SONA will almost certainly have no effect on the quality of governance in South Africa, we are asked to pretend that it has the potential dramatically to change our lives. I will prefer not to have to pretend.

Not that the antics of the EFF will have any effect on the quality of our lives either. At most it will provide some bread and circus to amuse an inquisitive public hungry for some entertainment. That is, if Eskom manages to keep the lights on, of course.

But what happens in the joint sitting of Parliament on Thursday will arguably raise significant constitutional questions. Does the Speaker have untrammelled power to make up rules as she goes along? Can the constitutional right of MPs to freedom of expression in Parliament be limited and if so, can it be done via arbitrary rulings of the Speaker?

In Speaker of the National Assembly v De Lille the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) gave some indication that in a Rule of Law based system like ours, the actions of the Speaker have to be guided by legislation and the rules of Parliament. If legislation and the rules of Parliament do not explicitly authorise the Speaker to limit MPs’ right to freedom of expression, conventions and habits cannot do so.

The SCA found that the threat that a member of the National Assembly may be suspended for something said in the Assembly inhibits freedom of expression in the Assembly and must therefore adversely affect the guarantee of free expression. Legal rules must therefore be interpreted to detract as little as possible from this right to free expression enjoyed by MPs in Parliament.

The Constitution does authorise the adoption of national legislation which will itself clearly and specifically articulate the “privileges and the immunities” of MPs. The question is whether the legislation or rules clearly and specifically authorise the Speaker to prevent MPs from asking questions or raising points of order when the president delivers the State of the Nation Address.

Section 7 of the Powers Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act prohibits a person from improperly interfering with or impeding the exercise or performance by Parliament or a House or committee of its authority or functions. It also prohibits a person from creating or taking part in any disturbance within the precinct of Parliament while it is meeting.

If it were assumed that the definition of “a person” includes an MP and is not restricted to non-MPs (something that is far from clear), section 7 would thus prohibit an MP from disrupting Parliamentary processes. An MP would be disrupting a Parliamentary process if he or she causes such a disturbance or disruption in a manner not authorised by the rules of Parliament.

If an MP swears in Parliament, assaults another MP, sings songs in the chamber, reflects on the competence or honour of a judge or continuously interrupts the Speaker while she is talking, he or she would be in breach of the rules and the Speaker would have every right to order the MP to leave the House.

But what would happen if an MP raises a point of order or attempts to ask the president a question when the president rises to deliver the State of the Nation Address on Thursday?

In terms of Joint Rule 13 an MP will not have a right to make a speech during a joint sitting unless invited to do so by the presiding officer or unless having obtained the permission of the Speaker and the Chairperson of the Council before the meeting.

But what about an MP not wishing to make a speech, but to raise a point of order or ask a question? The joint rules of Parliament does allow MPs to raise a point of order during a joint sitting as Joint Rule 14U states that: “A member may speak [during a joint session such as SONA] (a) when called upon to do so by the presiding officer; or (b) to a point of order.”

Joint Rule 14L, which states that at a Joint Sitting a member “may only speak from the podium, except to raise a point of order or a question of privilege” or in other circumstances not relevant here confirms this, confirms the right of MPs to raise points of order.

This means the Joint Rules do not allow MPs to ask questions of the president when he rises to deliver his State of the Nation Address. However, at the same time the Joint Rules do clearly allow MPs to raise points of order when the president delivers his State of the Nation Address addresses to a Joint Sitting of Parliament.

In fact Joint Rule 14S requires that when such a point of order is raised the person delivering the speech must go back to his or her seat. After the point of order has been stated to the presiding officer by the member raising it, the presiding officer must then give his or her ruling or decision thereon either forthwith or subsequently.

Now, it is argued that a convention has been established over the years that MPs do not raise points of order when the president delivers his State of the Nation Address.

However, Joint Rule 4 is very clear that such a practice cannot extinguish the right of MPs to raise points of order at a joint sitting. The Rule states unequivocally: “No convention or rule of practice limits or inhibits any provision of the Joint Rules.”

In short, EFF MPs will be within their rights to raise points of order during SONA. However, they will not be authorised to pose questions to the president.

But is it possible to argue that the Speaker retains a residual power to make rulings about the conduct of MPs, regardless of whether the conduct is authorised by the rules of Parliament or not?

In this view, the Speaker would be able to enforce a convention established over many years by ruling that no MP may raise a point of order during SONA, because the Speaker has the ultimate authority to control matters in Parliament and to enforce discipline.

This view would be in conflict with the Rule of Law, a founding value in our Constitution, which requires that public power can in general only be exercised if the Constitution, legislation or other legal rules authorise it.

The Joint Rules of Parliament do authorise the Speaker and the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), acting jointly, to “give a ruling or make a rule in respect of any matter for which the Joint Rules do not provide”.

As the Joint Rules do not provide for the asking of questions, the Speaker and Chairperson of the NCOP can rule that no questions will be allowed during SONA.

But the Joint Rules do provide for the raising of points of order by MPs during a joint sitting of Parliament. SONA is such a joint sitting of Parliament. Nothing in the Rules provide for treating SONA as different from any other joint sitting of Parliament.

If I am correct in this reading, it means that the Speaker (acting alone or jointly with the Chair of the NCOPP) is not legally authorised to make a ruling to disallow points of order because this would amount to an unlawful attempt to circumvent the written Joint Rules of Parliament, which do allow MPs to raise points of order.

Of course, if EFF members do not only raise points of order as they are legally authorised to do by the Joint Rules of Parliament, but bang on tables, sing songs or otherwise create a grave disorder, the Speaker is authorised by Joint Rules 14K to “adjourn the sitting” or to “suspend the proceedings for a period to be stated by him or her”.

It is unclear whether the Speaker has the legal authority to have MPs physically removed from Parliament if they cerate a disturbance. Section 11 of the Powers Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act states that:

“A person who creates or takes part in any disturbance in the precincts while Parliament or a House or committee is meeting, may be arrested and removed from the precincts, on the order of the Speaker or the Chairperson or a person designated by the Speaker or Chairperson, by a staff member or a member of the security services.”

The Act generally distinguishes between “members” (in other words MPs) and “persons” (non-MPs), so whether the section applies to MPs is not clear. I suspect in the months to come our courts may well have to give clarity on this question.

In any event, despite the fact that a State of the Nation Address is probably going to have no impact on the quality of governance in South Africa and, hence, will have little impact on the lives of ordinary citizens, it is an event that is invested with much importance by politicians, media elites and the punditocracy.

Disrupting this event may therefore be strategically unwise as a party who disrupts this flagship event, runs the risk of inviting the wrath of the “opinion-formers” and media bosses who control the quality and the quantity of publicity a political party receives. Whether the EFF would be wise to take on the establishment in this way, thus remains an open question. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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