Being a Council Speaker: A Juggling act of note

The position of Council Speaker is not just one of the most complex positions in any municipality but it is also one of the most challenging as well in an environment that is often characterized by political partisanship – a slippery slope if one does not tread carefully.

If one had to use an analogy, a Council Speaker is like a referee that is the custodian of all the rules and regulations that govern the Full Council. What makes this more complicated is that he or she is not an independent candidate elected or appointed into the position but he or she is a member of the majority party yet expectation is that the incumbent will dispense and apply the rules of council in an equitable and just manner, regardless of which party a councilor belongs.

With South Africa being a multi-party democracy, this means that numerous parties can get elected to occupy seats in any municipality. This makes it the more challenging for the Council Speaker as there are so many political dynamics within a predefined legislative framework to deal with. Msunduzi Council Speaker, Councillor Jabu Ngiba is tasked with this arduous responsibility of carefully treading this treacherous terrain. Being the head of council is a job that she dispenses with a certain level of maturity and confidence. With her party, the African National Congress, being the majority in the council, she has to balance her work with also looking after the rights of opposition parties like the Democratic Alliance, Inkatha Freedom Party and the African Christian Democratic Party.

You have to attend an actual Council meeting to fully and truly appreciate the dynamics she has to balance while keeping within the legal framework, as a recent council meeting will attest. By the way, these meetings are open to members of the public to attend at City Hall. Councillors had an agenda to get through that was so thick that it was bound into four tranches as well as a number of annexures to supplement the agenda items. The challenge the Speaker had to contend with was that attendance of the meeting was not the greatest in terms of the number of councilors in attendance. As such she was not guaranteed a quorum in order to render the meeting legally convened and decisions taken at that level legal and binding. At some point, the quorum was such a borderline case that Speaker Ngubo had to announce that no councilor could leave the venue as the quorum would be lost and render decisions that are taken thereafter non-binding and futile.

As councilors try to push their luck with her, Speaker Ngubo is the first one to remind them who runs the meeting and whose word is final – even if it means she does this to fellow political party members of the ANC.

With the agenda being a couple of thousands pages long, the speaker had to intervene a couple of times in order to request that members of the council keep their comments rather short on matters being discussed  in order to save time. With the mayor being the political head of the municipality, the speaker is the head of the Full Council – which means that the former also takes orders like all regular councilors at Full Council. The buck stops with the speaker at Full Council and the mayor at Executive Committee [Exco]. In short, the speaker is the chairperson of Full Council and is ably assisted by the Municipal Manager as the accounting officer of the municipality and the Legal Adviser to assist on all matters of law. Effectively, the trio run the meeting and all councilors make contributions to the matters being discussed and also vote on the same matters so that officials are able to implement council resolutions. While matters for discussions are first brought to Full Council, it is the same body that decides where those matters need to be referred to. They could be sent to the portfolio committees for further input as well as to the Exco before they are sent back to Full Council for ratification and final approval.