Baptism of fire for first-time political parties in parliament

07 June 2019 - 06:00 By Andisiwe Makinana
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Image: GCIS

Two of the smallest parties in Parliament got a baptism of fire when they were told to watch their tone in a heated debate on the allocation of time for a parliamentary debate.

Other parties represented in the programming committee and new National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise took a dim view of Al-Jamah's demand for more speaking time during the state of the nation [Sona] debate, to take place in three weeks' time.

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The African Transformation Movement's Vuyo Zungula was also heckled by EFF MPs when he proposed that smaller parties be given more time – a minute more than the usual three minutes to speak in parliament. He argued that being new to parliament they needed an opportunity to state their case and reply to the Sona address.

“Go and campaign so that you can get numbers!” heckled EFF MPs.

Speaking time in parliamentary debates is allocated proportionally according to the size of each party. There is also a standing arrangement where the smaller parties get a minimum speaking time of three minutes, otherwise they would speak for seconds if rules were strictly applied.

Al-Jamah's leader and sole MP, Hanief Hendricks, who is also new to parliament, criticised as backward a proposal to give the smaller parties only three minutes. He said parliament should take its cue from President Cyril Ramaphosa's call for parties to cooperate with the governing ANC.

“We still have a position where the winner takes all, watch the score board, first-past-the-post and yet we all are supposed to work together. The ANC has so much time, and they're only giving off a few minutes. I am so disappointed in that approach,” he said in an angry tone.

He, too, was heckled.

Modise was on hand, however, to give Hendricks advice on how he will win parliamentary debates, especially as someone in a small political party.

“Honourable Hendricks, you will learn with time that sometimes the softer approach and lobbying can get you better results, my brother. Because if you take that tone, you will lose every argument because people will use their numbers,” she said.

She advised him to follow the examples of Freedom Front Plus' Corne Mulder and UDM's Nqabayomzi Kwankwa whom she said had been around and knew that “in reality, if you go strictly according to the election results, some parties would never speak in parliament”.

On the table was a proposal that the ACDP, UDM, ATM, GOOD, NFP, AIC, COPE, PAC and Al-Jamah each get four minutes of the 454 minutes set down to debate Ramaphosa's state of the nation address. The second option would be for each of the parties to get three minutes each.

A parliamentary official explained that time allocation was based on a party's strength and that it couldn't be based on strict proportionality because of the provisions where the smaller parties got a minimum of three minutes.

“If you had to look at strict proportionality you would have a situation where a smaller party would be speaking for 11 seconds at a time,” added the official.

She explained that in terms of the three larger parties [ANC, DA and EFF] - the parties that have to cede some of their time - if parliament went on strict proportionality for a 454-minute debate, and subtracting the 60 minutes allocated to the national council of provinces MPs, the ANC would have 227, DA 82 and EFF 42 minutes.

The ANC, DA and EFF pushed for smaller parties to be accorded three minutes and not four with the DA's John Steenhuisen saying the larger parties were already sacrificing time to assist democracy by allowing the smaller parties to participate. This was echoed by ANC chief whip Pemmy Majodina who said the three minutes was considerate enough because if parliament were to stick to the rules, those parties would speak for less than three minutes.

“Three minutes is very fair. We are here on the strength of the electorate. If the electorate has given you a minute to speak because of the seats, then stick to that,” she said.

The EFF's Hlengiwe Mkhaliphi echoed the same view, saying the battle for time was not won in parliamentary meetings but through the ballot.

She spoke about how the EFF had 24 minutes of speaking time in the fifth parliament and how that had now increased to 41 minutes with its increased percentage of votes. “We didn't win here, we went to the ground and put [up] a good fight,” she said.

The UDM's Kwankwa, who was arguing for more time for smaller parties, noted that the ANC had previously gravitated towards giving smaller parties more time, adding that it was difficult for any party to do a proper interrogation and put an alternative proposal in place within three minutes. “In three minutes, you greet and the three minutes is up.”

The state of the nation address is scheduled for June 20, with the debate to follow five days later.

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