Buthelezi Legislative Proposal to amend current Executive System: finalisation

Private Members' Legislative Proposals and Special Petitions

17 March 2008
Chairperson: Ms P Mentor (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Buthelezi Legislative Proposal to Amend the Current Executive System, by introducing the office of Prime Minister and amending the Constitution, was further discussed. The Committee resolved to reject the proposal. Although it was agreed that the Office of the President must be respected, the Committee was not convinced how taking all powers from the President could assist in restoring dignity. Under the current system the President was a political appointment, and without the change to the electoral system the argument that it should not be a political appointment would not hold. There had historically been tension where the two offices existed. The Committee was not convinced that there were sufficiently strong reasons to abandon the current system. If need be, powers could be delegated from the President to the Deputy President. The Committee did not agree that there was a “crisis” that justified the change of the Constitution, nor had any specific reasons been advanced for this change. However, it was noted that although the Committee did not at this stage agree with the proposal being formulated as a Bill, this did not mean that the debate should end. Any individual or political party had the right to propose a debate in the House or through a public forum.

The Report on the Study Tour to Brazil was adopted. The Draft Committee Programme for Term 2, was adopted. The Annual Report for 2007 was approved and adopted.

Meeting report

Buthelezi Legislative Proposal to Amend the Current Executive System
The Chairperson placed on record that Members of Parliament did not make legislative proposals as representatives of their political parties but in their individual capacities. She appealed to the media to note that this was a legislative proposal at this stage, and not a Bill.

The Chairperson recapped that the proposal had been tabled, and the Committee held some preliminary discussions on a day when Prince Buthelezi had been granted permission to be absent. Last week he presented his case before the Committee and motivated it extensively. She summarised again some of the main issues.

Prince Buthelezi had said he intended, through the proposal, to restore the dignity of the office of the President. He had suggested the creation of a position of Prime Minister through the Constitution. Almost all current powers of the President would then be given to the Prime Minister, including issues such as declaring war, and of being in charge of security forces. He had also said that the office of the President should ideally be above politics. The Committee had questioned him how taking all powers from the President could assist in restoring dignity. The President of the country under the current electoral system was elected politically, so if the electoral system were not changed the Committee had also pointed out that it could not be argued that the President should not be involved politically. His election was dependent on his membership of and nomination by the majority political party.

Prince Buthelezi also argued that in the early dispensation of democracy, during transition, President Mandela had stated that he was the de jure President whereas Thabo Mbeki, then the Deputy President, was the de facto President. The counter argument from the Committee was that if this system prevailed  in the first years of our democracy, without removing the powers from the President, it could surely still be used if responsibilities needed to be given by the President to the Deputy President. The system still sufficed and there was no need to change it, nor to create a new post.

She asked Members to motivate whether it was desirable or not to proceed with the legislative proposal.

Mr G Magwanishe (ANC) believed that it was not desirable to proceed with the proposal. He said that the reasons Prince Buthelezi advanced for the change in the Constitution were not convincing. He had based his argument on the situation when the President was shown disrespect in Natal, when a crowd had booed. That was not to his mind sufficient to motivate a change to the Constitution. There would be turbulences in any democratic country from time to time, and the Constitution could not be changed every time this happened. He added that from 1910 to 1993 South Africa had a Head of State and a Head of Government, but it created problems. There could be tensions between the two offices. Thirdly, the powers that Prince Buthelezi had suggested must be given to the President were powers such as appointing the Prime Minister, and these were powers that were conventions under the Westminster system of government.  In the United Kingdom, after elections, the Queen would invite the leader of the largest political party to form the government. This was not the power of the President, but rather the power of Parliament. No significant powers were given to that office.

The Chairperson interjected that according to the proposal it would be in the power of the President together with Parliament that would appoint the Prime Minister.

Mr Magwanishe responded that the fact that Parliament would nominate the Prime Minister in fact took the powers away from the President. It was from that Westminster convention that the Head of State, who was the Head of Government, would invite the leader of the majority party to form a government. In the proposal it was not clear that that this would be the prerogative of the President alone. Furthermore, he believed that if the President were a ceremonial Head of State with no real powers it would not add value to the system. The current system was good and could be used in the same way as it had been in the past without amending the Constitution.

Mr Magwanishe further said that President Mbeki had been to every corner of South Africa and the people had been very happy to see him, so the two incidents in KwaZulu-Natal did not mean there was a crisis. There was no crisis, and the Constitution should only be changed in extreme circumstances.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) seconded the remarks. There had to be extremely strong reasons for any amendments to the Constitution. Whilst Prince Buthelezi had made out a detailed and complex case for the office of the Prime Minister and his / her authority, he had made no such case as to why the present system should be done away with. He had mentioned a “huge storm” that was coming but did not expand upon the nature of that storm and why it should engulf the Presidency. He referred to the Durban Rally, when the President ,in the presence of the Indian Prime Minister, was heckled. That was extremely unfortunate but did not represent a crisis requiring a radical change to the Constitution.

Mr Ainslie added that Prince Buthelezi also made reference to his address during the State of the Nation Debate. That address was also filled with vague concerns of what might happen, but nothing specific was mentioned. There were therefore no real reasons advanced as to precisely why the Constitution should be altered in such a drastic way.

Mr Ainslie further stated that Prince Buthelezi wanted to ensure that the President would be above party politics. However, since the nominee would come from a political party, there was a contradiction there already.

Mr Ainslie stated that South Africa had a young system but there was widespread support. It would evolve over time as change was required. In his view there was no need to accede to this proposal.

Mr H Bekker (IFP) reminded Members that the Committee’s decision was concerned with whether it was desirable that the proposal should go forward. That desirability did not mean that the Bill had to be enacted. It was merely a recommendation that the Speaker take the matter to Parliament where it would be further debated there.

Mr Bekker noted that Prince Buthelezi had put forward his proposal in a very professional and convincing way. The Committee may differ in its opinion of whether it would be the ideal system or not, but could not doubt the desirability to move forward with this particular aspect. He gave the example of Germany, which had both a President and a Chancellor, and noted that this system had for many years that worked extremely well, although it was introduced after a war-torn and ravaged country had to be brought together.

Mr Bekker stressed that the Committee was not required to debate whether it thought the proposal would succeed. He thought that the Committee owed it to the people of South Africa that this debate should be allowed to continue. He therefore suggested that the Committee vote that the proposal as submitted was desirable, and that Parliament must then debate and decide whether it was worthwhile. If Parliament did decide that it was desirable, then the proposal would come back to this Committee. He strongly advised voting for the desirability of this proposal.

The Chairperson noted that Mr Bekker should not try to confuse the meeting, but said that Members must seek consensus. Two members had formally proposed and seconded that it was not desirable for this legislative proposal to proceed into bill form. No one could debate that it was correct to respect the office of the President, but that related to the motivation. Whether it was desirable for the proposal to proceed to bill form was another issue.

Mr Bekker agreed that there was great respect for the office of the Presidency. He said, in relation to the desirability of the motion, that this debate should not be stalled here. He agreed with seeking consensus; he had always tried to seek consensus himself. He would not like the proposal to be killed in its infancy. He would like at least to have a further debate on the legislative proposal and its desirability. 

Mr S Mshudulu (ANC)  noted that the Committee must respect procedures. A motion to not support the proposal had been moved and seconded. Mr Bekker was now seeking to proceed on the basis of consensus, which was the usual way in which this Committee operated. However, from a procedural point of view, this legislative proposal was passed through to this Committee from the Office of the Speaker. Prince  Buthelezi did appear and presented his motivation. Members responded to the proposal before the Committee and highlighted certain areas. Although Prince Buthelezi had said this was a Bill, it was in fact a  legislative proposal. The strong point was the need for discussion and for public debate. However, the Committee had to draw a line. In terms of the Rules of Parliament any party had the right to propose an issue for debate. This was completely different to what was currently before the Committee.  He thought that it would not be fair for Mr Bekker to agree with the Committee but try to impose a condition that the matter must be debated. The Committee had to decide whether what was before it was desirable. There was another route if the IFP would like to have a debate, but they should not attempt to put conditions to this Committee.

The Chairperson concluded that it had been formally proposed and seconded that the Committee did not consider it desirable to proceed with putting the legislative proposal into a bill form. The counter-proposal by Mr Bekker had not been seconded, so it fell away.

In conclusion, the Chairperson commented that the Committee fully agreed with the principle that the office of the President was the highest in the land and must be respected. In addition there should be respect for  all other offices. Members, as incumbents, must respect the offices they occupied. Institutions of the State must also respect themselves collectively and as individuals to enhance their respectability in the eyes of the public.

She agreed that although the Committee had believed it not desirable to proceed with putting the proposal into bill form, this did not mean that the debate had to stop. Anyone had the right to start a debate, including one in the Chambers of Parliament, through motions and public discourse.

Report on Study Tour to Brazil
Ms S Rajbally (MF) thanked the Committee Secretary and the Researcher for compiling the report. The Report on the Study Tour to Brazil was adopted.

Draft Committee Programme Term 2
The Draft Committee Programme, Term 2, was adopted.

Annual Report of the Private Members Legislative Proposals and Special Petitions 20007
The Committee’s Annual Report for 2007 was approved and adopted.

The meeting was adjourned.

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