Speak out when things go wrong. The oath you will make today is to serve the country and its people – not your political party. Honour that, writes Melanie Verwoerd.
A few weeks prior to the 1994 elections I was canvassing with Jan van Eck in the Karoo. Jan was a brave politician who had fearlessly spoken out against apartheid and was also one of the first MPs to join the ANC after its unbanning in 1990. During the hours we spent on the road, I asked Jan what advice a seasoned politician like him would have for a young, soon-to-be first-time parliamentarian.
“Stay off pies and coke, it will kill you eventually,” he responded immediately (I was busy downing the last bite of chicken pie with a Coke). I laughed, since it made me think of Winston Churchill who, when asked a similar question by a new MP, responded something to the effect: “When you can go to the toilet, go. When you can eat, eat. You will never know when next you get the opportunity.” (Wise words.)
Jan kindly gave me other very important advice – some which I remember to this day: “Be brave even when you are shaking with fear” and “Don’t make the press your enemy – work with them.”
Today the newly elected MPs and MPLs will be sworn in. Thinking about them, I suddenly wondered what I would say if I was to be asked for advice – especially by those who enter those intimidating halls of Parliament for the first time.
I thought back at my years in Parliament and also consulted with a wide group of friends and work associates and here are 10 points of advice – in true Jan van Eck style – some more serious than others:
1) Talk less, listen more
You are there to serve, not to be served. A seat in Parliament is not a reward for something you have done. It is a calling to public service – it is your response to “Thuma Mina”. You are there to serve the millions of South Africans who have put their hope for a better life in you – yes, you, personally. Stay in touch with those who sent you there. Do constituency work. Respond to the letters they send you. Have public hearings in the committees, read the submissions. They are the reason you are there and they pay your salary. Don’t disappoint them.
2) Work hard
It is easy to hide away amongst 400 MPs – especially once you know how things work. Don’t! Prepare for committee meetings and then pitch up! Committee work is not glamorous and frankly at times boring. However, this is where the real decisions are taken and there is a real thrill in being able to tell your children and grandchildren: “I was part of writing that piece of legislation.”
3) Be brave
Madiba once said to me: “90% of the time a leader needs to listen to the masses, but a real leader is defined by the 10% of the time, when you have to go against what the masses want because it is wrong.” Speak out when things go wrong. The oath you will make today is to serve the country and its people – not your political party. Honour that.
4) Lead by example
You will now be watched all the time. Lead by example and live a life of integrity. Don’t sleep or shop on your Ipad in the Chamber. Don’t shout or swear or throw water bottles. Don’t take money that is not yours – in fact, don’t take anything apart from your salary. Pay your taxes. Be humble. You represent millions of people who live in the worst poverty – do you really need the most expensive car and designer outfit?
5) Learn about the economy
I didn’t know anything about the economy when I was an MP and I think that goes for 90% of MPs. Yet, growing the economy should be the number one priority if you truly want to improve the lives of all South Africans. Learn how the economy and the private sector works – and how it can assist government. And for goodness sake, never use the Gupta created phrase “white monopoly capital” unless you really understand what it means.
6) Fast track delivery
The people’s patience is running out – you only have to look at the elections statistics to know that. Delivery needs to happen – fast. Make that the priority and not point scoring against the other political parties – no matter which one you are in.
7) Don’t make the media the enemy
The media is powerful. It can make or break you. So, yes, treat it with respect, but don’t fear it. Talk to journalists, learn their names, give them your speeches. They are the only vehicles you have to inform the public about what you do.
8) Look after yourself
Parliament is a gruelling place. The schedule is relentless. So look after yourself physically and mentally. Be careful of those subsidised lunches, drinks and toasted sandwiches. Go for walks and while you’re at it, speak to the people you meet on the way.
9) Hang out with the smokers and the drinkers
…but don’t join them. The parliamentary pub is the place to be if you want to know what is really going on. This is where all hatchets are buried and deals are struck. The trick is to stay sober while others get drunk. That way you hear (and remember) things you wouldn’t otherwise, without getting yourself into trouble.
10) Take time for your family
Parliament is not family friendly. The hours are long and not conducive to spending time with children. You will need the support of your family. Make time for them.
Being a member of Parliament is an enormous privilege that should fill you with excitement and fear in equal measures. Yes, there will be many demands on you, but ultimately we as the voters want to be proud of you and regain our trust in you. So when you swear allegiance to the Constitution today, also undertake to always act in a way that can help South Africa rebuild its pride in Parliament again.
– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.
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