Op-Ed: MPs have an obligation to be the voice of the people

By Thabo Mbeki

Members of Parliament (MPs), each elected to this position by the people as a whole, and never by individual political parties, including their own, must act in Parliament as the voice of the people, not the voice of the political parties to which they might belong.


Recently the question has been raised publicly whether ANC Members of the National Assembly (ANC MPs) can support a Motion of No Confidence in the President of the Republic as proposed by Members of the opposition parties (opposition MPs). This matter has arisen because the President of the Republic, Jacob Zuma, is also President of the ANC. There are two major elements relevant to this question.

One of these relates to whether the ANC MPs can vote against their own party president, given the normal and standard assumption that members of political parties must respect all decisions adopted legitimately by their parties.

This asserts the principle and established practice that the ANC MPs are accountable to their party, the ANC, and must therefore, and at all times, act in Parliament specifically to implement the decisions of the ANC.

This very same assertion applies equally to all MPs of other parties represented in Parliament, and not only the ANC.

In the current specific instance, the legal ANC leadership has taken the decision that it has full confidence in its President, Jacob Zuma, and naturally expects all ANC MPs to respect this decision.

To the contrary, the equally legal leadership collectives of the 0pposition parties have adopted a contrary view, and therefore require their MPs to act according to this view.

On this basis it is logical that the opposition MPs are also expected to vote according to the decisions of their parties.

What we have described poses the question all parliamentary parties must answer – is this what the electorate expects of its elected representatives?

The second element relates to a more complex matter which is fundamental to the very character of ours as a constitutional democracy.

This has to do with the role of our MPs as defined by our Constitution.

In this regard it is imperative that all our political parties and our nation as a whole must pay particular attention to the 31 March, 2016 seminal judgment of the Constitutional Court which was occasioned by the Nkandla matter.

In that judgment the Constitutional Court went to great lengths to explain the obligations our Constitution places on all organs of state, thanks to the success of the vision adopted by our nation as a consequence of the political victory of the protracted and costly struggle for national liberation.

The millions who made enormous sacrifices to end apartheid domination determined that we must reconstruct our country as a constitutional democracy, and defined this democracy in our 1996 Constitution.

In this context, consistent with its constitutional mandate, among others the Constitutional Court explained the place, role and tasks of our MPs, and therefore the National Legislature, strictly as defined by our Constitution.

It stated, correctly, that our MPs serve in Parliament as representatives of the people!

They do not serve in Parliament as representatives of political parties, even as they are members of these parties.

All logic confirms that our Constitution is correct in this regard, which Constitution must be respected, consistent with what the Constitutional Court said correctly that:

“This Constitution is the supreme law of the Republic; law or conduct inconsistent with it is invalid, and the obligations imposed by it must be fulfilled.”

There is absolutely no MP who sits in Parliament by virtue of being elected by the political party to which they might belong, including those who subsequently get elected by Parliament to serve as Head of State and government.

All MPs, of all political parties, serve as Members of Parliament because they are elected by the people of South Africa and are therefore accountable to this electorate – the people of South Africa.

Specifically in this regard, the Constitutional Court said:

“The National Assembly, and by extension Parliament, is the embodiment of the centuries-old dreams and legitimate aspirations of all our people. It is the voice of all South Africans, especially the poor, the voiceless and the least remembered.”

Accordingly the National Assembly, and by extension Parliament, is not a conglomerate of the voices of the political parties represented in Parliament.

Rather, and of critical importance to the purposes of the constitutional democracy established through a very costly struggle for national liberation, Parliament must be the voice of all South Africans.

This represents the constitutional expression of the historic demand and vision – the people shall govern!

It is therefore obvious and logical that MPs, each elected to this position by the people as a whole, and never by individual political parties, including their own, must act in Parliament as the voice of the people, not the voice of the political parties to which they might belong.

Obviously the two elements we have explained of the imperatives which impinge on how MPs should conduct themselves in Parliament presents a conundrum which faces all MPs.

Should the MPs act in Parliament, in our constitutionally-mandated multi-party democracy, which therefore encourages the establishment of various political parties, as representatives of their political parties; or...

Should the MPs act in Parliament, which is elected on the basis of the constitutionally-required popular participation through a non-partisan universal franchise, as representatives of the people?

Boiled down to its essentials, the question becomes: what will each Member of Parliament decide regarding the vital questions:

Do I serve in Parliament to promote the interests of my political party;

Do I serve in Parliament to promote the interests of the people;

And, is it possible that there might be particular circumstances, and particular issues, when I consider that the interests of the party and those of the people coincide, and what actions should I take in this context?

It may be that the current political controversy has, at last, imposed on our country the opportunity and obligation the better to define the constitutional and moral relationship between the people and their elected representatives.

Whom do the elected representatives represent?


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