The Presidential Years

After being elected speaker, Frene Ginwala asked Mandela how he wanted Parliament to be run. At first he demurred, saying he lacked parliamentary experience. Then he shared his thoughts.

He said, ‘Look, you asked me for guidance, I want you to manage Parliament the way we managed the negotiations. It has to be inclusive. We’ve already got the electoral system we need, but I want you to run Parliament the way we did with negotiations where everybody was allowed to come and have a say and they were allowed to speak freely. The biggest challenge is that our people are not used to being in Parliament, the public is not used to Parliament, so we must make sure that everybody, every political party, every South African thinks it is their parliament.’290

​Frene Ginwala

He underlined the challenge, Sue van der Merwe recalls, by telling Frene, ‘Don’t let that institution collapse.’ 291

In line with Mandela’s sentiments, seating in the chamber was altered to give all the parties with more than one member a front bench seat, so that their presence was visible to the public on television; committee meetings were opened to the press and public; a public education unit was established to manage public outreach and access to information; the public was encouraged to come and observe debates from the public gallery. Some months later, when opening the second session of the new Parliament, Mandela took stock of the institution.

[T]he challenges ahead of us require that we move away from spectacle and rhetoric, and bend our backs to the serious work ahead of us.

Having thanked the leaders of all the parties, the members of parliament, the presiding officers, the whips, the chairpersons of committees, the Secretary of Parliament and his staff for the work done from the first day of new parliament, he further observed that,

Much of this work had to do with the establishment of our organisational structures and evolving a rhythm of work which would enable us to discharge our responsibilities in an effective and efficient manner.

All of us, precisely because we had never sat in any democratic parliament before, had to begin the continuing process of learning how to carry out our functions as people's deputies.

We had to educate ourselves in an atmosphere characterised by a critical public focus which did not necessarily allow for the reality of that inexperience.

We are pleased that the honourable members of both the National Assembly and the Senate have not been satisfied merely to endorse the bills that have been presented to them. They have participated actively in improving such draft legislation, with the aim of ensuring that our laws are consistent with the glorious vision we share of creating a truly humane and people-centred society.

Of particular importance is the fact that … the legislators, have worked in a manner consistent with the objective of ensuring that ours should be a parliament of the people.

This we have done by opening our proceedings to the public, to ensure that the people know what we are doing. We have also opened the doors to the people to address the legislative committees of parliament directly.

This has also been replicated in our provincial legislatures, consistent with our objective of bringing government as close to the people as possible.

We can therefore claim with justification that such legislation as has been approved is representative of the will of the people. It therefore enjoys a degree of legitimacy and enforceability which all previous laws could never have.292

He urged that ways and means should be found to ensure that ‘the people as a whole are better informed of what we are doing and are given ever improved capacity to intervene in our proceedings in an informed and purposive manner.’

When Parliament decided to remove from its buildings portraits and other works of art from the old era, Mandela supported the action. In this, he was encouraged by the fact that

… the decision to do so was taken after extensive deliberations within Parliament, and it was agreed to by all the political parties. The new democratic Parliament should reflect the image of an inclusive South Africa, in all its diversity. This is an important component of nation-building and reconciliation.

All parties are agreed that the existing works are a part of South Africa's history and will remain the property of Parliament. The Art Against Apartheid Collection, which has been donated to the people of South Africa and accepted by the Government of National Unity, will be exhibited in Parliament for a period of six months. In the meantime, the existing works will be cleaned and restored by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology.

I fully support the initiative by Parliament to launch, in this period, a national debate on what images should be conveyed through the walls and precincts of Parliament. Various options will be examined, including the display of some of the current works along with new ones. The final decision will be informed by the views of the public on this matter.293

Mandela paid respect to Parliament in other ways too. From time to time he simply visited Parliament to listen to debates. He was watchful of decorum, discipline and attendance. He had precautionary arrangements made between the speaker and his office in case he was ever going to be unavoidably late, so that the situation could be handled without disruption – but in fact he never was late.294

With his intense awareness of the symbolism of dress, he insisted on wearing a suit to Parliament:

Once I asked him, ‘Tata, whenever you come here to Parliament you always dress in a suit and tie but you are known for your Madiba shirts, it’s your trademark now. You’ve never worn one to Parliament.’ He put on his dignified face and said, ‘Frene, Parliament represents the people, I have to respect it and so I do always wear the suit.’ I said, ‘I can understand that when you are opening Parliament and walking up the red carpet, but when you just drop in as you do.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I have to change into a suit.’295

​Frene Ginwala

He worried about the uneven attendance of members and ministers, Max Sisulu explains, both because they needed to be in the House to do their job as elected representatives of the people, and also because the ANC as majority party had the primary responsibility to ensure a quorum in debates. Snap debates called by the opposition sometimes faulted the ANC on that score. 296

When the matter was raised by the first ANC chief whip, Mandela agreed to write to ministers about it, but cautioned, ‘You must find a way of making sure that you don’t put too much of a burden on them because they do have other work.’297 He was mindful of one consequence of what was only a partial separation of powers in South Africa’s Constitution, namely that members of the executive other than the president were also members of the legislature, so that obligations and meetings as MPs competed for time with their responsibilities as ministers.

Mandela was not required as president to answer questions in Parliament. The position of an executive president who was not a Member of Parliament was a new one and, probably without his knowledge, it was agreed by the rules committee that there would be no president’s question time – that was only changed when Thabo Mbeki became president. Though explanations differ as to why he was not required to answer questions in person, it seems to have reflected consideration of the pressures of his programme during those first years of transition; but also respect for his stature, age and the fact that he had delegated most of the executive functions to Deputy President Thabo Mbeki and other members of Cabinet. It would seem that there was an informal appreciation that he would be spared the hurly-burly of the highly partisan confrontations that such question time evokes.298

However, there was at that time a practice of interpellation, in which written questions could be put to members of the executive, including the president. Mandela’s responses, in writing and approved by him, were presented in Parliament on his behalf by other members of the executive. He explained this in reply to an interpellation by an opposition member about accountability of the executive to Parliament.

Any Member of Parliament has the right to put a question to the President or any other member of the executive within the rules, practices and conventions regarding parliamentary questions. The member of the executive, including the President, to whom the question is directed is responsible for the reply even if a colleague attends in his/her stead at the National Assembly. However, because of the onerous schedule of the President in the discharge of his functions as both head of the national executive and Head of State, it is seldom possible for the President to attend in person when questions put to him are to be answered in Parliament. Furthermore, the President is not a Member of Parliament and does not ordinarily participate in its committees or its proceedings. The President approves of the prepared answers to the questions put to him and accepts his responsibility for the replies.299