South African Parliament Opens Its Doors _ to Everyone
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) _ When the bell rang to signal another session of the apartheid-era Parliament, Slammert Faviers used to head for the basement.
One of the first non-white workers at the stately Parliament complex 27 years ago, Faviers was banished underground, forbidden to speak to the dark-suited, white legislators.
Now Faviers, once a cleaner and now a supervisor and sometime messenger, chats with black, white, Indian and mixed-race lawmakers, many in African clothes and shifting with ease from English to Zulu, Afrikaans or Sotho.
``Everything has changed,″ Faviers said. ``The first thing that impressed me was to see the president walk into the assembly, and he shook my hand. That was fantastic.′
The new atmosphere in Parliament reflects the changes in South Africa since last year’s all-race election ended apartheid and brought President Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to power.
A new legislature, dominated by blacks, has spent a year overhauling apartheid-era laws and creating a more open, accountable system. The 400-member National Assembly and 90-member Senate also are rewriting the constitution and drafting a bill of rights.
In the first two sessions of the new Parliament, 92 bills passed both chambers. Some took only a few minutes. The 55-page bill establishing a Truth Commission to investigate the nation’s bloody past required more than a year.
Under the former white rulers, Parliament merely carried out Cabinet policy decisions and passed an average of 130 bills a year. Now the process involves public consultation, with committee hearings and discussion forums throughout the country.
The committees have new powers to amend bills and discuss policy, formerly the exclusive domain of the Cabinet.
``In the past, members of Parliament were rubber stamps,″ said National Assembly Speaker Frene Ginwala, an ANC member. ``When we came in, we decided we were going to tip the balance in favor of the legislature.″
Committee meetings also are open for the first time to journalists, who wander freely through Parliament’s halls.
Once a sealed fortress, the 18th century brick buildings with a statue of Queen Victoria at the entrance also have been opened to the general public.
Boisterous crowds often pack the public gallery, where once only invited dignitaries sat. The premises are used for book releases, conferences and holiday celebrations. School children are a common sight.
Demonstrations take place almost daily. A few years ago, they would have been broken up by police with clubs and guns. Parliament workers, formerly barred from joining unions, even have protested on the floor of the National Assembly for better pay.
Only eight women sat in the old Parliament, compared with 118 today. The legislature had to add women’s restrooms on every floor and create a day care center.
Not everyone has been pleased with the change.
``In the old days, Parliament functioned like a well-oiled machine,″ said Barend Geldenhuys, a legislator for the former ruling National Party since 1979. ``I can’t recall one day that Parliament did not start sharp on time. Since the 27th April, 1994, I cannot recall one day that it did.″
He also complained about unruliness among spectators during debates and a recent spate of thefts. Sport Minister Steve Tshwete’s car stereo was stolen from the heavily guarded parking area.
But Geldenhuys also noted a new credibility compared with the 46-year rule of the white-minority National Party, which could pass whatever laws it wanted.
``In the old days, there was a saying that a broomstick could be an NP candidate for Parliament and make it,″ he said. ``Now, it is an achievement.″