The Presidential Years

Having assembled as an electoral college and chosen Mandela to be the country’s president (and in so doing obliging him to relinquish membership of Parliament), the new National Assembly’s next step was to choose its presiding officers– speaker of Parliament and deputy speaker. Given the importance of these positions, their nomination and election were strongly influenced by the party leadership, mediated by the ANC’s parliamentary caucus.

The day before Parliament was to meet for the first time as the electoral college, the ANC’s 252 newly-elected members of the National Assembly met in caucus to decide on who the ‘party’ would nominate as president, speaker and deputy speaker. The nomination of Nelson Mandela as president needed no discussion. The nomination of the speaker was contested but the result was the outcome of a prior political process in which Mandela had a hand.

An equally contentious question was the election of the Speaker for the National Assembly. Although the ANC had long accepted the principle of gender equality without qualification, actual practice still lagged far behind principle.

Among my staff as ANC President, there were three women, all strong, independent, well informed and outspoken. They brooked no form of chauvinism either from me or from my comrades. No wonder they came to be known as the three witches.

They were Barbara Masekela, who later became our Ambassador to France, Jessie Duarte, now Ambassador to Mozambique, and Frene Ginwala . We had numerous discussions on a wide variety of issues. All of them were impressive and hard working and they helped to purge my system of all contempt for women. I earmarked Frene for the position of Speaker of the National Assembly.

There was dead silence from my comrades when I first shared the secret with them.

I suspected that the fact that I was proposing a female comrade, at that time, irrespective of her qualifications, did not go down well to those comrades, the overwhelming majority of whom were males.

There had also been some differences, and even in-fighting, among exiles abroad which were still evident in their work inside the country. I, however, made it clear to all concerned that I would tolerate no unprincipled objection to a competent comrade from an organisation which had been entrusted with the awesome task of governing the wealthiest and most developed country on the African continent. I virtually ordered that every ANC parliamentarian should vote for her as Speaker.

The other difficulty had come from Frene herself. She telephoned me one morning and demanded to know why there were so few women in the Cabinet. In replying to her I added that I would ensure that she became the Speaker. She vehemently protested that she was not talking about herself; she was raising a general issue which affected all women.

As the debate between us was heating, I asked her pointedly to choose between accepting or rejecting my offer. In our discussions, I have always been consoled by the knowledge that she had more respect for my grey hair than for me in person. She paused a bit and then said she would think about the matter. I was relieved when she later agreed to serve.

Her decision was a landmark as it was the first occasion in our history for a woman to occupy that powerful position in our national legislature. It was a double victory since the deputy speaker was also a confident and able woman, Baleka Mbete Kgositsile .

The common view among parliamentarians from all sides of the House is that she has acquitted herself well without any previous training or experience in this regard. She is non-partisan and frequently rebukes members for unparliamentary behaviour, irrespective of the political affiliation of the offender.

Her superb performance and mastery of the functions of her office has not only enhanced respect and support across the political divide. Her remarkable achievement and that of her female colleagues in the House, has clearly demonstrated that the battle for gender equality is being won.287

This rare achievement has been rewarded by parliament when she was unanimously re-elected for another five years.288

When the Senate met for the first time the nomination and election of the Senate’s president and deputy president took place without contest – Kobie Coetzee of the National Party became president of the Senate and the ANC’s Govan Mbeki its deputy president. That mirrored the National Assembly where the ANC speaker had an NP deputy, namely Dr Bhadra Ranchod, and also the Constitutional Assembly chaired by Cyril Ramaphosa with NP member Leon Wessels as deputy. Although there was no constitutional requirement for such arrangements, they were agreed between the ANC and NP, in the spirit of national unity.289