The National Assembly has 400 members. The number of seats that a party has in the Assembly is in proportion to the number of voters that voted for it in the elections.
OFFICE BEARERS OF THE ASSEMBLY
At its first sitting after a general election, the National Assembly elects the Speaker, the principal office bearer of the Assembly. The Speaker has many responsibilities which include constitutional, statutory (in terms of the law), procedural and administrative powers and functions. The duties of the Speaker fall broadly into three categories, namely –
The Speaker is equivalent in rank to a Cabinet Minister. Though the Speaker is a member of a political party, he or she is required to act impartially and protect the rights of all parties.
- presiding over sittings of the House, maintaining order and applying its rules;
- acting as representative and spokesperson for the Assembly and (with the Chairperson of the Council) for Parliament; and
- acting as chief executive officer for Parliament, in conjunction with the Chairperson of the Council.
In performing his or her functions, the Speaker is assisted by the Deputy Speaker and three House Chairpersons, each with specific areas of responsibility determined by the Speaker.
To ensure the proper functioning of the House, the presiding officers are assisted by the whips. Whips are party-political functionaries. A whip is a member selected by his or her party to assist in organising party business, keeping members informed of party and parliamentary business, ensuring that members attend committee meetings and debates in the House, arranging for their members to speak in debates, and to perform many other duties. The Chief Whip of the Majority Party, by virtue of his or her party being the majority party, also has certain duties in relation to proceedings of the House. Recognition is also given to the chief whip of the largest minority party. He or she is called the Chief Whip of the Opposition.
As the leader of the largest minority party (or largest party that is not in government), the Leader of the Opposition enjoys a special status in Parliament. The post is specified in the Constitution and the rules and is accorded a specific salary, though he or she has no specific duties in terms of the rules.
RELATIONS WITH THE EXECUTIVE
There are three office bearers who facilitate liaison between Parliament and the executive. The Leader of Government Business is appointed from the Cabinet by the President to take care of the affairs of the executive in Parliament. That includes the programming of business initiated by the executive and arranging the attendance of Cabinet Ministers in respect of parliamentary business. The Speaker may also select two members of the Assembly to act as Parliamentary Counsellors, one to the President and the other to the Deputy President. These members are responsible for facilitating communication between the Assembly and the offices of the President and the Deputy President.
HOW THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY WORKS
Some of the tasks of the Assembly, particularly those involving detailed consideration of matters, are more appropriately performed by a smaller group than the Assembly sitting in plenary, i.e. as the full House. Much of the Assembly’s work is therefore done in committees, but the final decisions on all matters are taken by the House. The House always has the final authority.
In accordance with the powers given to it by the Constitution, the Assembly establishes a range of committees with assigned powers and functions. The committees are required to report regularly on their activities and to make recommendations to the House for debate and decision. A large part of the Assembly’s role in the law‑making process happens in committees and much of its oversight over the executive is also done through committees, particularly the portfolio committees.
There is a portfolio committee for each corresponding government department. The composition of the committees reflects, as far as is practicable, the numerical strengths of the parties represented in the Assembly. That committee will deliberate on bills covering that department’s area of jurisdiction and scrutinise and report on its annual budget and strategic plan. As the people’s representatives, members of the committees determine whether government departments are delivering on what they promised and whether they are spending the public money they receive in a responsible manner. As part of their oversight work, committees may also do site visits where they find out directly from the people at ground level whether the government is delivering on its promises.
If a committee reports on a matter and makes certain recommendations, that report will be debated in a full sitting or plenary to give other members of the House an opportunity to engage with the content of the report. Once the report has been debated, the House decides whether to adopt the committee’s recommendations. The House may also decide only to note the report or it may refer the report back to the committee with an instruction to do further work.
In addition to dealing with government business, usually bills initiated by the executive, individual members (sometimes called “private members”) have several ways of bringing matters to the attention of the House. A member may give notice that he or she intends moving a motion in the House. A motion is a way of asking the House to take a decision on or to debate a particular matter. The rules also make provision for members’ statements on certain days. During members’ statements, 15 members get an opportunity to make a statement for a minute and a half on a topic of their choice. At least six Ministers are then afforded two minutes each to respond to any of the statements. The opportunity for members’ statements was created mainly to give members a chance to raise constituency issues in the House. Furthermore, if there is a burning issue of grave importance that a member wants the House to discuss as soon as possible, he or she may request the Speaker to agree to accommodate a debate on a matter of public importance.
Statements by Cabinet Members
A Cabinet member may make a factual or policy statement relating to government policy, any executive action or similar matter of which the Assembly should be informed. The Minister in question asks the Speaker for an opportunity to make such a statement. Each political party is allowed an opportunity to respond to such a statement.
Private Members’ Legislative Proposals
Members may also submit legislative proposals for consideration by the House. The member submits the proposal for new legislation or amending legislation to the Speaker. It is then tabled and referred to the Committee on Members’ Legislative Proposals and Special Petitions. That committee will look at the proposal and advise the House on whether it is a good idea to proceed with such legislation. If the House agrees, the member submits a draft bill and it is referred to the relevant portfolio committee for processing.
Another important mechanism the Assembly has of holding the executive to account is questions to the President and Cabinet Ministers. Members submit questions by certain deadlines for oral or written reply. Question time in the National Assembly is usually on Wednesdays, during which time the Ministers respond to the questions for oral reply. The member who originally asked the question and members of other parties then get a chance to ask follow-up questions and probe the matter further. The answers to questions for oral and written reply are published in Hansard, the official record of the debates in Parliament.
The National Assembly has many other tasks and roles in addition to those mentioned above, including the ratification of international agreements and the appointment of certain office bearers such as the Auditor-General and the Public Protector.
For a detailed overview of seat allocation view the State of the Parties in the National Assembly.