Speaker sets democratic pace in new South Africa

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ONE DAY early last month, the catering, cleaning and secretarial staff of the South African parliament stormed into the debating chamber and occupied the seats normally reserved for Nelson Mandela, F W de Klerk and the other 398 democratically elected honourable members.

The palace coup had been engineered by Frene Ginwala, a small, white-haired lady in a sari who lived in exile in London for many years and now rejoices in the title Speaker of the House.

Ms Ginwala, a member of the African National Congress, had decided upon her appointment in May that her main priority would be to bring democracy to parliament. This meant, first of all, raising the parliamentary staff out of a condition of quasi-slavery.

During the apartheid years, parliament sat in Cape Town for between four and five months a year. For the rest of the year the parliamentary staff received no pay and no contractual guarantees that when the next session came around they would resume their jobs.

To the delight, disbelief and cheers of the hundreds who packed the hall, Ms Ginwala announced that from now on they would all be permanently employed, with benefits, pensions and year-round salaries.

After the ceremony, as the newly emancipated withdrew from the hall in good order, a group of catering ladies approached Ms Ginwala and presented her with a bouquet of roses. One white woman, who said she had been working in parliament for 22 years, was so overwhelmed with gratitude that she broke down and cried.

'The premise I'm working on,' Ms Ginwala explained last week, 'is that democracy begins in parliament.'

Determined to put to good use the dictatorial powers afforded by her position, she said she saw it as her task to redefine the whole style and content of parliament. This included shedding some of the forms of a system that in virtually every detail - save for democracy itself - used to be an exact replica of Westminster.

The gold mace will remain but, in consultation with the Rules Committee, Ms Ginwala has abandoned the custom whereby it is borne into the chamber at the start of every day's session in a long procession headed by herself and the sergeant-at-arms.

No longer, too, are restrictions placed on style of dress. 'Members,' she said, 'may dress as they wish so long as it is in a manner consonant with the dignity of the house.' Open- neck shirts and jeans have emerged, accordingly, as the favoured style of dress of some of the white ANC MPs, although the black MPs - as well as Mr de Klerk's Nationalists - tend to favour the traditional dark suit and tie.

As for the public gallery, anything goes, as long as people conform to basic criteria of neat cleanliness. 'If you insisted on strict dress rules for the gallery you would be automatically excluding a large sector of the population.'

In a measure of the transformation that South Africa has undergone since the April election, the MPs themselves represent every strand of society. The chamber once dominated by white male Calvinists now provides 'a kaleidoscope', as the Minister of Water, Kader Asmal, described it, of former guerrillas, retired Afrikaner generals, Zulu chiefs, convicted 'terrorists', trade unionists, white farmers and black nationalists. Muslims sit with Jews, Hindus with Catholics, atheists with elders of the Dutch Reformed Church. As for 'the new South Africa's' claim to stand not just for 'non-racism' but also for 'non-sexism', its parliament has one of the highest proportions of women in any legislature in the world: 25 per cent, including a third of the ANC's 252 majority.

With women come children. Another innovation is a creche on the premises, provided free for MPs, staff and the resident press. It caused a shock at first to the previous incumbents but now no one raises an eyebrow at encountering a lone black child in a lift or toddlers playing in a green-carpeted corridor under a painting portraying the cabinet circa 1958.

As for the exchanges in the chamber, it is surprising how quickly the new black MPs have absorbed the old colonial habits. When a National Party MP speaks, ANC backbenchers read newspapers or chat. When an ANC MP begins a speech with 'My friends . . .' Mangosuthu Buthelezi jovially barks out, to much laughter: 'Who are your friends?' As the Cape Times remarked last week: 'The lion of Ulundi (Buthelezi) has become a tame pussycat'. When a Pan-Africanist Congress MP says 'There are strange things going on in this house', an Afrikaner nationalist growls: 'Yes, and outside it, too]'