Interview: Mr Lechesa Tsenoli MP

Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly

Photo: RSA Parliament - Deidre CarterPhoto: - Mr Lechesa Tsenoli

Q: Looking back at your time in the Fifth Parliament, what have been your greatest or most memorable occasions and/or achievements?

A: I felt that the ANC had a conspiracy to grey my hair, on reflection, with the kind of crazy things that happened in Parliament. Nobody was prepared for that. We had grown accustomed to people behaving in a particular manner and responding in a particular manner. There were people there, in the last five years, or whom we remember from way back, like Koos van der Merwe, a lawyer and Chief Whip of the IFP, who once came into the Chamber with a cake as his way of protest, but he didn’t call it a protest. He said, “I thought that I should ask the House to celebrate with me one year of no response from the Presidency”. He had the cake but, of course, the Speaker told him to take the cake out of the House. That was his way; he was very humorous. That way of people filling the opposition benches doing things in an interesting or humorous way. It is what I miss. The outright refusal to comply with the rules was a very dramatic and most prominent thing for us as presiding officers of the past five years that we had to deal with and necessitated changing the rules. People said that we had to change the rules, which was already on the agenda, but it simply accelerated the process for things that we never imagined would happen inside the House.

The second thing, I think, was when we received a thank-you from the Cuban government following the release of the Cuban Five who had been incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay by the United States government. Part of the reason it was memorable, was because acts of solidarity and what we refer to as internationalism, meaning that we see our Constitution as giving eminence to the philosophy of Ubuntu, humaneness, that if anyone is oppressed anywhere in the world, it is our duty to support them. When as a result, they were released, the Cuban Five chose that the one country that they should come to was South Africa because they had heard about the consistent support from Parliament, the Executive and our people, generally, and many organisations – so they felt that they owed South Africans a huge vote of thanks for that support. That was very memorable and to continue to remember because it represented the results of the appropriateness of solidarity. When we act together … here is a line that shows that: “History has shown that the world can act together when it chooses”. It is a fascinating expression that I think explains this thing. It was about refugees and explained how the world could come together to help them solve those problems. It was evidence of the possibilities of that.

I don’t know if memorable gives the impression of positiveness. There are the negative things that we can’t not remember as they happened: the dramatic decision of the court against the President and Parliament was quite a dramatic event in the past five years. It, in a sense, signalled the role which we had, in any case, reserved for the Constitutional Court in our relationship of the three arms of the State and what their responsibilities are. Even as it was hurtful – for what others would have correctly argued we could have acted differently – but it also served a useful purpose to clarify the expectations and the correct interpretation of the law. Even at the Constitutional Assembly, which morphed into the National Assembly and the NCOP (National Council of Provinces), which wrote the Constitution, its interpretation along the way had been given to the Constitutional Court. So, in a sense it was one of those events that was quite dramatic. You can call it a low in the past five years.

But what we proceeded to do subsequently … there may be one or two court cases that may have been against Parliament, but they were also nuanced and explicitly clarified the role of Parliament, confirmed its responsibility to run its own affairs, and have rules that would guide that process on a number of issues, including cases that were brought by the EFF, or against the EFF. The clarity that the Constitutional Court gave and its confirmation of the responsibility of Parliament to act in specific instances, was very useful. But the architecture of the overall system, for me, has come into play in the way that I am suggesting, among others, through the Constitutional Court and Parliament, in a particular manner, and the Executive. For example, the role of institutions that support democracy: the Court usefully clarified the Public Protector’s recommendations of findings as binding, which was very useful in the overall scheme of things. The institutions that support democracy played an important role. Often when we talk of the performance of government in our country, we don’t cite them and the role that they play. I am talking here about the Public Protector in this instance. I’m talking about the Auditor-General. I’m talking about the Human Rights Commission, the Commission on Gender Equality and the Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Rights Commission. Their role has been very significant. In my scheme of things, those decisions of the courts, especially about the Public Protector, were very significant. It was dramatic and we can’t not remember it during the past five years.

Q: Could you flesh out more what are the greatest frustrations you have faced in the Fifth Parliament?

A: In the context of a Presiding Officer working alongside other Presiding Officers, our frustrations would be in the manner in which Members, broadly speaking, acted in ways that we initially never expected them to do. That created a problem often in managing the House, in certain instances, and required of us to do things that, otherwise, we wouldn’t have wanted to do. That was very frustrating.

The fact that we had to strengthen the ability of the sergeant-at-arms to carry out, in this instance, her responsibility and be supported by people, was an extent that we had to go to that we thought that we could have done without. That was frustrating. These are Members. Ordinarily, we would have expected Members to adhere to the rules of Parliament. In any sport, there are rules by which people must play the game. I don’t understand why, in politics, we didn’t do that. We had been doing that all along, but people decided, ‘No’, they are going to play the game outside of the rules. So that was frustrating because it also challenged us sometimes to act, as I suggest, in ways that we didn’t want to. We would have preferred not to do that; we would have depended on Members themselves to use their conscience. And the recognition of the expectation of the public out there that, even, different as we are and, with 13 political parties in the House, but those differences, including on issues before the House, did not necessitate us acting in a despicable manner in the House, so that was pretty frustrating in many instances.

Q: What immediate changes, besides more budget, would result in the greatest improvements in the work of Parliament?

A: We are in the process – I have to start there – of positioning Parliament in ways that the Constitution anticipated and it is exactly where you talk about the budget because that positioning of Parliament as the third arm of the State, responsible for its affairs, is not a cheap process. Democracy, broadly, it has come across to us very dramatically, is not cheap and for us to be able to run Parliament, and to run it effectively, in spite of technologies that perhaps we could use and so on, still requires space. There are difficulties of space and we had to resort to using the hotels in the neighbourhood, obviously to their happiness, to conduct some of the business of Parliament. This is the sort of thing that we think Parliament should have within its precinct. In other words, the nation should invest in appropriate facilities to do the work that we are doing, even as we consider embracing and using some of the technologies to carry out the work we are responsible for. That is one of the things that we have to attend to.

The second thing that we need to do is to strengthen our capacity as Parliament, including in the area of legal advice. We generate laws and we consult a variety of people but Parliament’s capacity for this is crucial; both legislation drafting and writing skills but also its appropriateness constitutionally. Some of the people employed in Parliament in the legal section, when recruited, were not initially required to be constitutional experts. This is what is emerging. We may have delayed in requiring that the Parliament legal section should be populated by people with deep constitutional experience. They have expertise, but a different kind of expertise than the constitutional expertise necessary. This is an important part that the Sixth Parliament must pay attention to.

The third one, and this is where there is some useful success, when we reflect on how we co-operated in the legislative sector. When I spoke earlier about positioning Parliament, it is also positioning itself as part of the legislative sector in the country, in other words, Parliament, meaning the National Council of Provinces and the National Assembly, including provincial legislatures, so that we co-ordinate the strength that we are required to have. In meetings of the Speakers’ Forum, some of the officials of the legislatures were talking about how coordinating, interacting and consulting with one another enabled them to avoid legal problems that could have arisen if they did not have access to each other and consulted across the sector. We have also progressively moved towards a legislative framework that binds us together in the legislative sector. The FMPPLA, the Financial Management Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act, as amended – is a very useful part of that. There is already another piece of legislation in the making that seeks to take this collaboration further. And But we think we are ready for an additional piece of legislation that binds us together to be able to do things, without usurping our individual competences as contained in the Constitution. We are given responsibilities in the Constitution as the various legislatures, but that collaboration has been a very useful one.

A useful thing emerging out of that – the Speakers’ Forum agreed on another crucial area of coordination and collaboration: the Bargaining Council for Workers in the Legislative Sector. We have already given authority to officials to work towards creating a bargaining council in the legislative sector in line with the Labour Relations.

The question is what else needs to change. We have taken a decision … we have had a very useful relationship with universities in South Africa right from the beginning, over the past 25 years. Over time the relationship with universities was built around what we call capacity-building for Members and this we have done with the collaboration of and funding by the European Union to enable Members to study in appropriate areas of their function. This has been very useful, and a significant number of Members who arrived here without tertiary education have progressed, some to receive doctorates, others have masters, and others are in the pipeline to reach those academic heights. And it’s been a very useful programme.

We have decided in line with that capacity-building initiative, to have a parliamentary institute so we hope that the incoming Parliament will be implementing this. There are educational programmes that belong to Parliament. They have been designed, and are, for Parliament. It is not generic education; it is specific to governance. There are aspects such as ethics that are critical.

On international collaboration, we have played a role in the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Two things flow out of that international environment. One of our strategic goals was to deepen our international engagement so the work around solidarity is informed by that. Secondly, the Inter-Parliamentary Union developed what they call a ‘gender self-assessment toolkit’ to determine one’s status in advancing gender equality policies. What are the numbers like? Are Members and staff able to participate in shaping these policies? What level of leadership are women and men occupying in the institution? That gender self-assessment toolkit, we shared, with the other legislatures in our legislature sector, and it’s been a very useful exercise.

This work that is happening in the Speakers’ Forum is part of the collaboration of the legislative sector overall and has been financed by the EU International Cooperation and Development. However we have had many discussions with Ministers of Finance to brief them about this positioning of Parliament. Training must be integrated in our budget because it is absolutely crucial. We can see the value and even those people who have now left Parliament and gone through this support are absolutely grateful for the academic levels they have reached while being supported by Parliament and they have become more skilled members of the public following that. So, we don’t see it as a loss when they go. Hon Lindiwe Maseko is leaving as an advocate. She chairs the Committee on Science and Technology. We are proud that we have people like that who have done that. Obviously, we support Members from across all political parties in that environment.

Q: How has your life changed since becoming Deputy Speaker?

A: The ANC has sacrificed my quiet persona. I can’t go to the shop next door without people asking me questions. So, even when I want to disappear to some quiet place, that is no longer possible. In a sense, because of the public nature of the work we do, not just inside South Africa, but internationally as well as we interact with other parliamentarians elsewhere. They are quite aware of the work we’re doing in Parliament and, consequently, they know us, even as we arrive, on the basis of that. It has also created interesting pressure from other parliaments wanting to go this route. The transparency of our parliamentary processes has had an interesting, and in many instances, very positive impact on some of those parliaments. Of course, they also beat us in certain respects when we compare what’s happening.

How has my life changed? Of course, what it means is that I hardly participate in debates in the House, which is what I used to love in the past 20 years as the then Chairperson of Committees. We hardly do that. As former Speaker Max Sisulu once said: “Honourable Members, you must listen to the Speaker. The Speaker hardly speaks in here”. Despite what we are called! So that is how it has changed. It has meant that I have to play referee.

And, of course, the exposure that we receive as Presiding Officers, both in the country and globally, is very significant, but very helpful as well. The interaction with other Speakers and Deputy Speakers in the world is a very powerful measure of appreciating what we are battling and dealing with here. Others are finding the same problems, so we are able to share insights.

The Speaker has, now and then, delegated me to interact with political parties when problems arose, although strictly speaking, we should not get involved with internal party political issues. But, because situations have arisen, we have found our way to talk without usurping their authority over their political parties. That has been very useful.

And, talking about delegation, there are areas of delegation that we were given, and it has been a complex work in this area of Chapter 9, Chapter 1 and Chapter 10 institutions. When we arrived here in 2014, the work done by Kader Asmal was left for us to complete and this function was delegated to me by the Speaker. The interaction that we have had with the leadership of these institutions here in Parliament, and in the Constitutional Court facilities in Johannesburg, were very useful. In addition, our visit to these institutions, during a door-to-door, to the Public Service Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the CRL Commission, the Auditor-General, the Public Protector and all of them, interacting with Commissioners and staff members was very useful exposure. Having interfaced with those institutions, we were able to, as fairly as we could, deal with the problems these institutions were confronted with.

Q: Given hindsight, would you have done anything differently?

A: Yes, there are. On reflection, when we look at the induction model for Parliament, I think there is room for what is referred to as ‘creativity’ and problem-solving. In our daily work we are confronted with problems in Parliament itself, in our relationships as MPs. In the absence of effective creative political solutions, they undermine the potential that we have to act effectively together. If I was aware of this, as I am now, we would have made provision for support, including outside, for all of us as public representatives, not only as MPs, but provincial members and municipal councillors, to have, as part of our ongoing training, creative problem-solving because what we have to deal with requires real creativeness to resolve the problems that we confront among ourselves as a team but also in our relationship with the public.

From a presiding officer perspective, we could have had a more deliberate programme to interface more with the public as individual Presiding Officers to talk about Parliament. I am suggesting that in terms of public education, we could have done more, and a lot of creative stuff, in working with the public to advance the interests of the public. So, that is what I would definitely have done differently.

I think the public broadcaster should ensure that the people have more access to Parliament than what they provide. Whilst there is this transparent and publicly available DSTV channel, Channel 408, it is limited by the requirements you to have. That’s one thing we should have solved a long time ago. So, as we end fifth Parliament, we had already long discussed with the public broadcaster about the hope of bringing about this change: to increase the accessibility of parliamentary work to the widest possible public audience to increase political literacy. Political literacy means ‘enabling people to notice the political systems and how they work so that they can be impacted upon quicker and earlier so that we get better results’. This is one area where we could have done better and differently.

We have adopted a public participation model and this is one area in which there were instances when we were taken to task by the courts about legislation brought before us. So, we have learnt a lot from the Court’s decisions that clarifies and informs the legislative process we must have. On this public participation model, we have also debated about whether we should be spending so much time in Parliament instead of in constituencies, working with institutions and structures and more directly being available, helping to deal with and solve problems. That is an area which the Sixth Parliament is going to have to confront and address. There is a strong case to be made for MPs spending a lot more time, in a deliberate and organised fashion, interacting with the public and stakeholders of various organisations.

From the middle of our fifth term, developments in Parliament led to a more robust engagement, for the first time, in systematically bringing private power to account. This has been one of the most important developments. We are hoping that having the private sector hauled before Parliament, was a useful example that accountability is required from all of us both in the public and private sector. There are relationships between the two so we can’t not hold the private sector to account. The necessity for increasing that kind of accountability is great.

Of course, some of the disappointments would include the matters of ethics that we have had to deal with and the level of corruption. What we are happy about is the acceptance of the decisions the institutions that support democracy and their implementation – such as the Zondo Commission and the PIC Commission and the parliamentary inquiries – are crucial. They constitute a good foundation for cleaning up government so we know what went wrong where, and why, the extent of it and who must be held accountable. The feedback we have received from some people is that they are glad that it is being done publicly and in a transparent manner. Parliament must be a platform for directly holding the Executive accountable, and demanding accountability and ensuring that every Rand is spent appropriately for correct purposes and that we can see progress and an improvement in the quality of the life of people.

The quality of our follow-through with countries that we have met in this office - in the boardroom next door and in the boardrooms of the Speaker and the Chairperson - is very important. They have opened our eyes but they have also shared our own perspectives with their parliament and government in a significant way.

The South African Parliament has participated in a dramatic development in parliamentary diplomacy, like never before. So if there is any good that has happened, it is this increasing role of parliamentary diplomacy. We reject xenophobia. We were able to meet with the Nigerian legislature here to talk about this and to say that we should keep our relationship strong so that we are able to exchange information quickly whenever anything happens. We have a responsibility to the people that we represent to act swiftly against xenophobia and clear up any wrong doing. The level of criminality must be brought down in all the countries we engage with because if anything is worrisome, it is this area of criminality. And its worst manifestation is gender violence, especially against women and children. Parliament has acted in a variety of ways as a platform for dealing with this. In addition to the sectoral annual meetings to advance the interests of women and gender equality and the SADC Master Plan recommendations, towards the end of last year, we hosted, in collaboration with the Department of Social Development, the Men’s Parliament, which was a first. Significant issues arose from that Men’s Parliament because a decision was correctly taken that, in various provinces, we should identify in our overall struggle for gender equality and ending gender-based violence, the role of men specifically. Due to the way we are socialised, we as men have to look at that. Although this was largely people from the provinces who were not necessarily public representatives, it was very useful for Parliament to serve as a platform having those discussions.

Q: You talk about international parliamentary diplomacy, I was looking at the work of Committees and the number of countries they met with including other parliamentary committees, I am sure that it has been more than ten countries.

A: Yes, you are correct, and including the global forums for the presiding officers, supported by some Members, such as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and our leadership role within it, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and the BRICS Parliamentary Forum that will be acted upon soon – we have already established it, but it needs to be acted upon soon.

The other, not often spoken about, is the oversight of the World Bank. It’s the parliamentary network of MPs who hold the World Bank to account, and one of our Members, Yunus Carrim, is part of that. It is important and needs its work to be further publicised. One person who participated in it, and was its chairperson, was former Member, Ben Turok. He’s been a life-long activist, intellectually challenging the solutions proposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. It got to the stage where he and parliamentarians from other parts of the world agreed to create a network that would hold both bodies accountable. The work is important because our overall policy is to democratise these global institutions. The way they are constituted is problematic and therefore the decisions that they come to are problematic for that reason. Their quality would improve if they were to be democratised. We can’t have countries, because of their size, having a veto over the rest of the world. That oversight work on the IMF and World Bank is an important piece of work as they have a huge impact on our countries.

Q: What advice would you offer to incoming Members of Parliament?

A: Our Fifth Parliament Legacy Report will constitute an important platform for the work of the new parliamentarians. We draft a legacy report to say this is what we have done, these are the problems we confronted, these are the challenges that remain to be handled by you.

The legacy report is both specific to the work that each of the Committees is doing, and overall on Parliament’s programme and outstanding tasks: legislation, policy evaluation and interaction with communities. There are undertakings that parliamentary committees made, including the NCOP in its 'Taking Parliament To The People’ in various parts of the country. There might well be areas where there is a need to make follow-up.

There is also what we refer to as an induction model to handle both MP and Committee responsibilities, and the interaction of those Committees with the Executive. There is specific content for each of the Committee inductions and the relationships they have in that sector. Therefore, right from the beginning, MPs are familiar with what work is outstanding, what must be followed through, what must continue, the level of continuity and the appropriate changes that may be necessary as there are elements of continuity and of appropriate change. We hope that the induction programme will be presented creatively and that it is always available and accessible to them.

Some advice is generic: There are certain expectations about the status of an MP that can be very dangerous; that can be very inappropriate; that can impact our lives negatively. We need to be careful of that and adopt a lifestyle, an attitude towards being a public representative that is a lot more humble, that is a lot more down-to-earth, and resist the temptations of the cheque book that is often waved around immediately to any new set of Members of Parliament. That is a very important part of the advice.

Q: What does the future hold for you?

A:There is a possibility that I might come back to Parliament, but just to tell you – what I will tell all MPs when they come, is that they must take care of their health. We must not neglect our health, and I can say this with hindsight. Taking care of ourselves and taking an appropriate break to be with family and friends and having a correct social environment in which you operate are critical health requirements. It is very tempting to suffer what they often call sacrificial syndrome – to want to work 24/7. It is not helpful; it simply shortens your availability to us. The next thing is you’ll be spending more time in hospital than on the job, talking to people and sorting out their problems, or in Parliament. If you can pay attention to your health, that will be great.

I am a continual learner so I will continue to learn about the interesting things that I will be doing. I also intend to slow down a little bit, I am hoping, because I am likely to come back here. What I do, unfortunately, is not my individual decision – it is my political parties' decisions. The SACP and the ANC will always have a say in what I will do in the coming period. I will be available to play a supportive role to as many as is wanted.


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