“Let them roll, Let the blues roll out,” read the defiant opening lines of a poem Baleka Mbete wrote in the 1980s.
Exile Blues- although it might have been inspired by the pain of displacement and homesickness – could also describe the stoic attitude the speaker of the National Assembly and ANC chairwoman has adopted towards her current political woes.
Mbete has every reason to fret about her political future. Parliament has been a shambles under her stewardship, mainly because opposition parties do not view her as an impartial presiding officer.
Those who are close to her deny that she has a cosy relationship with President Jacob Zuma, but her critics nonetheless accuse her of being the president’s biggest defender – in conflict with her constitutional position as the co-leader of the institution charged with keeping the executive in check.
At the end of the five-day ANC policy conference held in Johannesburg this week, Mbete is ensconced in the heavily guarded “Lion’s Den” room of the Nasrec Expo conference centre, a sanctuary for the party’s top brass for the duration of the policy indaba.
The ambience inside is friendly, in sharp contrast to the atmosphere outside. Aides quickly usher me over to the woman slumped on the velvet couch.
It is clear that the 68-year-old politician is tired after presiding over the gathering of more than 3700 branch delegates who met to chart the embattled party’s political direction.
Mbete, who returned to parliament in 2014 after a five-year absence, is adamant that she is not the author of her troubles.
She blames the “cacophony of noise” from the “6% party”- a reference to the EFF – for swamping the good work she thinks the National Assembly might get done under her leadership.
“Not that this is a major crisis because things will finally come out for what they are. You can’t fool all the people all the time. They will discover what is what,” she says.
“There is a refusal to accept in this fifth parliament what is readily accepted by political parties after elections – that one of us got more support from the electorate than the rest of us.”
An assessment of parliament commissioned by her predecessor, Max Sisulu, in 2009 warned that “a conflict of interest may exist, or may be seen by the public to exist, when a presiding officer of one of the houses of parliament simultaneously holds a senior position within a political party”.
Parliament would possibly exhibit the sort of decorum the public expects had its lawmakers heeded the panel’s advice to seriously consider this issue.
But the report is gathering dust in the archives and its recommendations were never implemented.
It might have spared Mbete the blues of having to preside over a divided house, in which opposition parties question her legitimacy at every turn.
“The stress has nothing to do with the fact that I am national chairperson [of the ANC]. They would find something else if it wasn’t for the fact that I am national chairperson.”
She points out that Mosiuoa Lekota chaired the ANC while presiding over the National Council of Provinces in the late 1990s.
Lekota, who is now with COPE, held the post in the NCOP for just over two years, before moving to the cabinet.
Mbete, mother of five grown children, is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Her position in the party makes her the custodian of its decisions. It is inconceivable that she could take a decision in her party’s top six to close ranks with the beleaguered Zuma, only to be neutral in parliament when her boss comes under fire.
Her quandary is compounded by Zuma’s personal scandals, which have deeply divided the party and cost it electoral support in the past two elections.
But she counters: “The issue is not about the individual deciding to step down now I have been elected speaker.
“In fact, it goes with our system. You are given a specific role and you play that role. It’s not all parliaments in the whole world that require you to step down [from a party office] once you are elected speaker.”
The rest of this year is set to be politically charged as ANC leaders jostle for the support of branches ahead of the party’s December elective conference.
Every move leaders make, every statement they utter and every claim they stake are seen against that backdrop.
Mbete, who harbours an ambition to succeed Zuma as president, seems cautious about conceding any mistakes, knowing as she must that her opponents in the party will use her every word to gauge her suitability to lead. It was, after all, under Mbete’s leadership that the Constitutional Court found that the National Assembly had failed South Africans by not holding Zuma accountable for the government’s excessive spending on his Nkandla homestead and for ignoring the instructions of the public protector to pay back some of the money.
Apart from the string of court cases that parliament has lost when challenged by opposition parties, a number of bills have been sent back to parliament because lawmakers failed to dot all i’s and cross all t’s.
That shoddiness sullies the image of parliament, leaving courts to instruct MPs on how to do their work.
ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe warned in his report to the policy conference that the ANC leadership’s failure to carry out its work in the government “creates an environment for judicial overreach”.
What is the speaker doing, then, to assert parliament’s authority?
In November 2015 Mbete and her National Council of Provinces counterpart, Thandi Modise, asked Zuma to convene a meeting between them and Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng to enable the leaders of the three arms of government to discuss their working relationship.
The meeting, Mbete says, was prompted by their concern that some judges were not impartial.
“When there is a case that affects someone from the ANC, those cases would find their way [into the courts] and if they end up in the hands of certain specific judges, forget it, you are going to lose that case.
“It has nothing to do with merit, with correctness or wrongness. Some names pop up in the head already,” she says, without naming the judges she accuses of political bias.
Mbete’s biggest headache right now is ruling on whether a motion of no confidence in Zuma, which is scheduled to be debated by the National Assembly on August 8, will be voted on in a secret ballot.
She is playing her cards close to her chest, saying that she will wait to hear arguments from all sides before making up her mind.
What is clear is that should she decline the opposition’s request for a secret ballot, she will wind up facing another court battle.
Another area of conflict between her and opposition MPs is likely to develop over her reluctance to have parliamentary oversight committees haul over the coals ministers implicated in the Gupta e-mail scandals.
She cites budget constraints as well as the fact that Zuma is already mulling establishing a commission of inquiry to probe the allegations of state capture as reasons for her hesitation.
“We might need to just reflect and say: ‘Where would it be best to leave this exercise so that it can do a thorough job?’
“Of course there’s anxiety about how soon this commission of inquiry will be off. At the end of the day you might find that that’s where this kind of issue can be delved into as thoroughly as possible,” she says.
Signs that Mbete might defer to the executive are unlikely to endear her to those MPs who feel that parliament shouldn’t take its cue from the Union Buildings.
And – in these pre-elective conference days when even MPs have suddenly found the courage to speak out against the executive – she will discover that those who are not happy with her approach are not confined to the opposition benches.
With all that has happened in parliament over the past few years, you’d think she wouldn’t be keen to enter the presidential race. But she clearly is. It is up to the party branches, she says, but if they nominate her she will accept.
Despite her unflinching loyalty to Zuma over the past decade, she is not his camp’s preferred candidate to succeed him. The camp wants Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to become the party’s first female president in December.
Hurt by snub
Mbete’s associates say she was “hurt but not surprised” when the ANC Women’s League snubbed her for Dlamini-Zuma.
But her attitude, they say, is that “surprises happen in the ANC” and she will not simply throw in the towel in the belief that the race is only between Dlamini-Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
If she were president, her priority would be to unify and heal a party that has been rocked by divisions, she says.
She also believes that money spent on the provinces could be cascaded down to districts and local municipalities to empower them to improve the lot of communities. Money could also be saved by trimming government bureaucracy and the number of ministries, she says.
She also pledges to champion the advancement of women, which she believes will help put the issues affecting them on society’s agenda more firmly.
An admirer of the works of Mandla Langa, Ben Okri, Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston, Mbete once said she would put off publishing her own poetry until she had left the political stage.
She started writing as a child in the KwaZulu-Natal township of KwaMashu and later in the Eastern Cape.
These days she pursues her craft only when the spirit moves her.
Depending on what happens in December, it might be a long time before the poet in her waxes lyrical again about the blues.