22 February 2021

Delays in the Assenting of Bills


According to the Constitution, all Bills passed by Parliament must be submitted to the President for assent (signed into law). Once a Bill is signed by the President, it becomes an Act of Parliament and a law of the land.


Unlike in other jurisdictions, the President does not have an unimpeded veto power over legislation passed by Parliament. Section 79(1) of the Constitution states that: The President must either assent to and sign a Bill passed in terms of this Chapter or, if the President has reservations about the constitutionality of the Bill, refer it back to the National Assembly for reconsideration. Constitutional law expert, Pierre de Vos, writes “[I]f, after reconsideration, a Bill fully accommodates the President’s reservations, the President must assent to and sign the Bill. If not, the President must either assent to and sign the Bill, or refer it to the Constitutional Court for a decision on its constitutionality."


The President’s role in the law-making process is to ensure that legislation is constitutional.


The period between the passing of legislation by Parliament and its assent by the President varies and can be quite long at times. The urgency of a Bill, its complexity as well as bureaucratic and political reasons, largely determine how long it sits on the President’s desk before assent. As part of the process, the President also seeks counsel and considers submissions and petitions made to him. In some cases, this includes listening to concerns from beyond the country, such as foreign governments and international bodies.


Since taking up office in February 2018, President Ramaphosa has taken an average of 70 days to sign a Bill into law. The breakdown by year is as follows: 84 calendar days on average to sign the 23 Bills passed by Parliament in 2018; 97 calendar days to sign the 16 passed in 2019; and 31 calendar days to sign the 11 passed in 2020. Of the 11 passed and signed in 2020, six were Money Bills, which are traditionally signed into law much quicker than other Bills.


Between 2006 and 2017, the President took an average of 59 calendar days to sign a Bill into law.


Of late, these delays have been subject of much concern from both Parliament and civil society. In the National Assembly Programming Committee, MPs raised their misgivings about the time the President takes to assent Bills. They requested a legal opinion on the matter. In summation, the legal opinion says there is a constitutional obligation to ensure that Bills are assented to within a reasonable time, and this obligation must be carried out diligently.


This opinion is in line with the views expressed by de Vos: “What the President cannot do is to refuse to sign the Bill at all. The President may also not unduly delay the signing of a Bill in order to delay the implementation of the Bill. He must either refer it back to the National Assembly because he is of the view that the Bill is unconstitutional, or he must sign it. This is because Section 237 states that all “constitutional obligations must be performed diligently and without delay”.


MPs were informed that the Speaker has studied the legal opinion and the next step was for her Office to engage the Executive in an effort to come up with an agreeable framework to ensure there are no unnecessary delays in legislative processes, as currently there are no stipulations as to what constitutes a reasonable time for Bills to be assented to. During this meeting, Members weighed in and emphasised the importance of having a record of all Bills awaiting the President’s signature. ACDP’s Steve Swart gave an example of the Protection of State Information Bill, which was initially passed by Parliament in November 2013, and then went on to sit with two Presidents for seven years before being returned to the National Assembly in June 2020, after President Ramaphosa expressed reservations about the constitutionality of the Bill. MPs concurred that having a Bill sitting on the President’s desk for seven years was undoubtedly not reasonable and goes against the spirit of the Constitution.


Bills the President has not yet signed [ranked in time order]


Date passed by Parliament

How long the Bill has been on the President’s desk

Private Security Industry Regulation Amendment Bill (B27-2012)

3 March 2014

7 years

Communal Property Associations Amendment Bill (B12-2017)

4 December 2018

3 years 8 months

National Land Transport Amendment Bill (B7-2016)

10 March 2020

11 months

Airports Company Amendment Bill (B5-2018)

24 November 2020

3 months

Air Traffic and Navigation Services Company Amendment Bill (B6-2018)

24 November 2020

3 months

Cybercrimes Bill (B6-2017)

02 December 2020

2 months


EFF’s Floyd Shivambu pushed for going beyond the “stopgap measure”  proposed by the Speaker’s Office.  He felt it might be necessary for MPs to give guidance, either legislatively or by way of an in-principle policy agreement, on this matter. He argued it was paramount that there be standard practice to ensure there is no blurring of lines between Parliament and the Executive. Otherwise, assenting of Bills would be left to the whims of a President who could decide he/she was not going to sign a piece of legislation on political grounds- which would be against the spirit of the Constitution.


As a way forward, the Deputy Speaker said subsequent to the aforementioned discussions between the Speaker and the President, a report will be compiled- which would give Members guidance on what course of action to take. In all this, constitutional tenets ought to be followed and compliance with constitutional governance frameworks was of utmost importance. 



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People's Assembly

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