The launch of an independent panel investigating the effectiveness of transformation and equality legislation since 1994 is one of the more confusing announcements of 2016. Isn't that what parliamentarians are supposed to be doing, every day? By GREG NICOLSON.
“Has it worked?” asked National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, on Tuesday, about attempts to reduce inequality. “The evidence tells us ‘no’ if you listen to South Africans.”
As Parliament returned for the year, she was announcing the Speaker’s Forum launch of a panel to assess the efficacy of post-1994 laws on inequality, poverty, unemployment, wealth equality, land reform, and nation building – basically, the key competencies of government. Mbete, who was awarded the King Legacy Award for International Service in Washington DC last week, continued, “It’s all very well to pass laws…. The point is, what is the impact of these on people’s lives?” It was a moment of reflection from the Speaker in a year demanding national introspection, with racism, student protests, a depressed economy and elections on the way.
Speaking to SAFM, Mbete’s deputy, Lechisa Tsenoli also linked the need for the independent panel – which has 12 months to narrow its focus, hold public hearings, collect available research, and identify legislation that either encourages or impedes the advance of the developmental state and transformation – to public sentiment. “What we have seen in public discourse, we are not seeing the effects of what we expected to see,” he said, using key phrases like “faster change”, “deepening transformation” and “speed implementation”.
Listening to grievances, acknowledging challenges, and committing to improvements is straight out of the ANC’s lexicon on crisis management, but the panel’s mandate is so vague and possibly embarrassing for the ruling party that if it’s an election strategy, as the Congress of the People (COPE) suggested, it will, at best, only buy the party time to avoid tough decisions ahead of the elections.
The Independent Advisory Panel on the Acceleration of Change and Transformation, funded by the United Nations Development Programme, includes 17 members, led by former president, Kgalema Motlanthe. It will look at how legislation since 1994 has affected the key challenges of today:
- poverty, unemployment and inequality;
- the creation of and equitable distribution of wealth;
- land reform, restitution, redistribution and security of tenure;
- nation building and social cohesion.
The aim is not to reinvent the wheel, Motlanthe has been explaining, but to collate information from parliamentary committees, the judiciary and civil society, and let the public have its say.
Except for the occasional and, for party leaders, perhaps too frank, comment in the media, Motlanthe has been absent from public politics since he lost the leadership race in the ANC’s 2012 conference at Mangaung. This week he told the SABC his impressions on transformation and equality going into the panel.
“I think we have two countries in one geographic space. The one is characterised by back-logs in bulk infrastructure. People have no access to potable water, no access to proper sewer system, no access to electricity even in certain areas, and, you know, basic amenities. The schools are not the same. You have one part of South Africa that is developed, with all the modern requirements met, but there’s one that is left behind, and my view is that progress can only be measured by how far we go in terms of changing the material conditions of the section of the South African population that is left behind, in rural areas, in the townships. We’ve got to modernise South Africa.”
The office of the ANC chief whip welcomed the panel, saying it will ensure the impact of legislation is measured. Still, it is unclear why it is necessary. Getting experts and the public together to discuss how laws that limited, and laws that could help achieve, transformation goals, if it’s funded by the UN, cannot really be a bad thing, right? And an independent panel could be able to offer some new insight, right? But Parliament’s committees have spent sessions, over years, discussing these exact points. The public makes submissions on key issues. Laws in the National Assembly are proposed, discussed and continue to be passed. Constantly there are debates on how legislation and policies, new proposals and amendments, are supposed to achieve the exact equity and transformation objectives the panel will be looking at. The public and civil society make submissions. Outside of Parliament, the ANC, with its majority, is largely responsible for lawmaking, and holds policy conferences and makes proposals on how to improve transformation. The country even has a blueprint in which to align laws on poverty, inequality, unemployment land, and social cohesion.
“If the ruling party believes that the poor and the jobless will buy its ploy of appointing the Motlanthe panel to remedy poverty, inequality and joblessness, it is clutching at straws,” said COPE spokesperson Dennis Bloem. He suggested Parliament instead choose a dozen laws to review “because most MPs know which laws have been most problematic in respect of job creation and poverty alleviation. The ruling party, unfortunately, does not have the will to do what is necessary.”
For Mbete and the ANC, the panel is a sign they acknowledge the growing despondency in SA. Discussions have shifted from whether there’s a “good story to tell”, to acknowledging not enough has been done, accepting a new path has to be taken, and debating how to move forward. By mandating the panel to assess the impact of legislation since 1994, the Speaker’s Forum implicitly acknowledged the increasing criticism that the ANC steered the country in the wrong direction, or as some say, it “sold out”. It does buy time and sells empathy right before the important election, but it is also a smokescreen that obscures the clear view of the government’s lack of ideas and failure to implement its own policies. As a political move, it scores high marks. Only time will tell if it also help people of South Africa, too. DM
Photo: Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete reacts during an answering of questions session by South African president Jacob Zuma in parliament, Cape Town, 11 March 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA.