Chairperson of the Session,
Host Speaker and Chairperson of the 17th Commonwealth Speakers and Presiding Officers, Africa Region, Honourable Mukabalisa Donatile
Fellow Speakers and Presiding Officers
Esteemed Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

Mr Chairperson, allow me to start by thanking you for the opportunity to second, on behalf of South Africa, to second the topic “The Presiding Officer in a Changing Society: Strategies for floor management of radical dissent and minority government” as moved by Sierra Leone.

In supporting the topic, I will briefly touch on the following:

  1. The role of the Presiding Officer in the Parliament of South Africa;
  2. The notion of impartiality of the Presiding Officer;
  3. The right of Members of Parliament to be heard;
  4. The rules of debate and procedural developments in the context of South Africa;
  5. The emergence of filibustering; and
  6. The experience of managing coalition governments
  7. The role of the Presiding Officer in the Parliament of South Africa 

We view the role of the Presiding Officer as central to the upkeep and the strengthening of our democracy. The responsibility of the Presiding Officer is, therefore, among other things:

  1. To preserve parliamentary integrity which is key to the cultivation and maintenance of public trust and confidence in Parliament;
  2. To maintain order and discipline for the conduct of the business of the House; and
  3. To ensure the smooth running of the House through establishing the rules of engagement.

We are of the view that in carrying out his or her responsibilities, the Presiding Officer may have to deal with dissenting voices from among the Members of Parliament.

  1. The notion of impartiality of the Speaker or Presiding Officer

A Presiding Officer needs to maintain an impartial mind. This is of course, as we know, much easier said than done given that, in our context, a Presiding Officer is also a political animal.

For example, at least once in a week the Presiding Officer is expected to join the rest of the MPs in attending to constituency matters under the auspices of his or her political party. Having been exposed to the rigours of party political work, the Presiding Officer returns to the chair to mediate political conflicts in the interest of Parliament.

As the officer presiding, his or her duty is to act impartially and to protect the rights of all the parties.

  1. The right of Members of Parliament to be heard

Our Constitution guarantees freedom to receive or impart information or ideas. In the context of Parliament, freedom of speech is deemed as “a fundamental right crucial to representative government in a democratic society”. The Presiding Officer protects the right of MPs to be heard by, among other means:

  1. Allowing Members who are speaking to express their views freely;
  2. Ensuring that Members adhere to the rules of debate;
  3. Regulating the time allocated for debate;
  4. Ruling on any dispute as to the procedure to be followed by the House; and
  5. Protecting the rights of the minority.

The Members, including the people they represent, are always at the ready to call out the Presiding Officer when they are affronted by the manner in which the proceedings are managed. Where there is evidence of bias, our Rules provide for the removal of the Presiding Officer by means of a resolution.

  1. Rules of debate and procedural developments in the context of South Africa

Mr Chairperson, the fifth term of our Parliament (i.e. from 2014 to 2019) was particularly challenging and compelled a deeper and more thorough assessment of the rules and procedures that guide the core business of Parliament and the conduct of Members. Presiding Officers had to take uncommon decisions, such as:

  1. Suspending the business due to grave disorder in the Chamber;
  2. Suspending Members for disregarding the authority of the Presiding Officer; and
  3. Dealing with cases where Members refuse to leave the Chamber after being directed to do so by the Presiding Officer.

At least one of these incidents led to the imposition of stiff sanctions through internal processes. However, the extent of the sanctions led to the courts cautioning against the temptation to limit the powers of “the parliamentarians who are dispatched to Parliament to articulate the needs, views, political and economic attitudes of their constituency, the people who voted for them”.

  1. The emergence of filibustering

A politician filibusters when they take up inordinate time on a matter so as to delay progress. At different points in the fifth Parliament, we have had to contend with extremely long hours of sitting, sometimes right into the early hours of the morning. This occurred when some Members insisted on making prolonged points of order and almost endless motions without notice with the sole intention to obstruct the progress in the Chamber. This posed two immediate challenges:

  1. Considerable delays in the consideration of the orders of the day resulting in increased delays in the decision-making processes of Parliament; and
  2. Increased cost of managing the business of Parliament.

However, I must hasten to say that in the recent past - the use of virtual and hybrid platforms with their supplementary rules, due to the need to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, has, to some extent, seemingly restored the authority of the Presiding Officer. It is somewhat strange to see the new technology as potentially the Presiding Officer’s saving grace. But Chairperson, it is too early to tell as our institutions are in constant motion.

  1. The experience of managing coalition governments

At national level, we have not had the challenge of having to manage minority government. However, this is an increasing phenomenon in the sphere of local government. This month’s local elections have resulted in 66 hung municipalities across the country.

Those in the coalface of these developments and some researchers suggest that coalition governments can both be a blessing, as they allow for increased consultation, and a curse, due to them causing`` instability. Chaos in some of the Metropolitan Councils has, in some case, made it difficult for Presiding Officers to manage the proceedings well. Such is the commotion that one Councillor was sentenced to three years in jail, one year suspended, after he hit an opposition Councillor on the head with a glass water jug during an altercation. This is a mere reminder that the situation can become very complex.

This time around, the South African Local Government Association has led the process for the development of a framework for coalitions in local government, for voluntary adoption by parties. The framework aims to resolve the challenges of instability and to encourage cooperation in coalitions.

Mr Chairperson, in conclusion, the topic proposed by Sierra Leone presents a number of anecdotes that are enough to regale the Conference for hours. However, it would be egregious of me to extoll the virtues of order and discipline while at the same time hacking away the Standing Rules of this Conference by speaking beyond the time you have allowed me.

I thank you.