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Letter to the editor: Parliament is not out of order!

South Africa

South Africa, Media

Letter to the editor: Parliament is not out of order!

In recent years, the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa has been at the receiving end of bashing from its implacable critics – some members of the media. As such, the Business Day article on Monday, 19 September 2016 by Khulekani Magubane titled “Parliament’s financials ‘are out of order’” came as no surprise. At first glance, the article seems well balanced. But as one delves deeper into the article, one gets a huge sense of disappointment. By Thembani Mbadlanyana, Executive Assistant (Research), Office of the Secretary to Parliament.

The article is devoid of any credible and substantiated facts, an anomaly that renders it very thin on substance and very rich on sensational antics. An array of unrelated information (such as the Secretary to Parliament’s annual salary and accommodation costs) is assembled to give credence to baseless claims. It also doesn’t take long before one notices that this article is marred by lack of journalistic flair and rigour. The article only serves one purpose, that of accentuating the misinformed and hackneyed narrative that Parliament is “out of order” and all is not well in the institution. But this was to be expected from Magubane and his journalist friends because, off late, their writings have been deployed not pursuant to noble journalistic ideals but in pursuit of goals ignoble.

To start with, the title of Magubane’s article is misleading. The journalist purports to be talking about Parliament’s finances, while in actual sense he is talking about non-financial performance matters and performance targets. The only evidence provided to support the claim that Parliament’s finances are out of order is a single wrongly applied quote by Auditor General (AG) alluding to errors discovered and material misstatements on the reported performance information of programme 3: public participation and international engagements. The fact is, the AG declared the annual financials of Parliament as free of material defect- meaning that the institution received a clean audit.

Contrary to the gloomy picture depicted in the article, parliament is well managed, visionary leadership is provided and Members of Parliament (MPs) are well supported as they are assisting the institution as it is following up on its commitment to the people. In fact, the 5th democratic Parliament has been very open and clear about its planning processes and strategic thrust and has, on several occasions, communicated this with members of the media. At the top of the institution’s strategic priority list has been the need to, among others; strengthen oversight and accountability; enhance public involvement; deepen engagement in international for a, strengthen co-operative government and strengthening legislative capacity. Also high on the 5th Parliament’s agenda has been the need to position itself as a true tribune of the people and delineate its role in a developmental state, implementation of the National Development Plan (NDP) and advancement of the national developmental agenda.

In the true pioneering spirit, at the beginning of the 5th Parliament there was a decision by the current administration to introduce a new conceptual framework and/or business model. This new business model is articulating the link between operational processes or results and long-term outcomes. Parliamentary oversight is now also orientated towards results and outcomes. In essence, this meant that the institution’s business cycle had to move beyond the five-year horizon to consider and/or encompass the 15-year time horizons of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SADC Master-Plan and NDP and the 50-year time horizon of African Union (AU) Agenda 2063. This required parliamentary oversight to be orientated towards results and outcomes and to be informed and anchored on long-term thinking. The basic underlying assumption was that, with a higher degree of logic and coherence, the cumulative impact of government’s input and output processes would be the attainment of development and desirable societal outcomes.

The new business model seeks to improve the institution’s value chain and infuse efficiencies and effectiveness to the institutional processes. It seeks to ensure that there is realignment that focuses on the strategic priorities of Parliament, providing greater alignment between the priorities, the resources and the overall structure to allow for greater management effectiveness.

Now, as the second year of the 5th Parliament is in full swing, Parliament has fully transitioned towards a result and outcomes based approach. Progress on the predetermined performance indicators and targets shows that the institution might realise most of the goals it has set for itself. In particular, to mention just the few, the institution has made progress to achieve an integrated and seamless support for members; it has made progress in ensuring that Members of Parliament, as elected representatives of the people, are able to access, in real time and space, research products, content advisory services, and legal and procedural advice of the highest quality. The institution has further improved the value of information and ease of use.

The focus now is on partnering with universities and research centres to develop capacity and infuse long-term thinking and foresight to the institution’s ways of doing business. The institution is busy developing strategic policy planning tools that will assist its oversight over the implementation of the NDP. There has been a realisation by the management in the institution that, as the art of policy making and practice of oversight are changing, greater systematic attention needs to be paid in developing research, scenario planning and forecasting capabilities as an aid to improved law-making and oversight by Members of Parliament.

The 5th Parliament’s strategic priorities alluded to above, together with all these changes and new proposals, talk to the goal of repositioning the institution to be the standardbearer of meritocracy on issues of oversight and accountability. Certainly, public participation, accountability and effective oversight are essential, not only to the operations of Parliament, but also for the country’s democracy. Therefore, it is imperative that the accountability chain is strengthened from top to bottom, with a strong focus on strengthening oversight and accountability.

This is why at both institutional and sector level, in order to bring about focused and improved oversight and to keep the executive accountable, there has been development of oversight models/mechanisms. More so, through its participation and leadership role at Speakers Forum and Secretaries’ Association of the Legislatures of South Africa (SALSA), Parliament has contributed immensely to development of the sector public participation model. To ensure that there is harmonisation and/or standardisation of practices and systems, throughout the legislative sector, a process in under way to have one Legislative Sector Bill.

All these changes, efforts, achievements and new proposals place the country on a better footing and position the institution to be at the forefront of new developments and innovative changes in the global legislative sector. Key actors in the legislative sector now acknowledge that the South African Parliament has not been the follower of events- but rather, it has been the catalyst and exporter of best-practices.

In fact, in Africa, the South African Parliament has been an envy of its peers and has been seen as the source of best practices. For instance, the National Assembly of Kenya recently invited the Secretary to Parliament to its 6th Leadership Retreat to present a paper and share some insights on how our bicameral parliamentary system functions and how administration in the South African Parliament has organised itself. The Kenyan National Assembly acknowledged that the South African Parliament is one with the best recognised model of parliamentary administration, particularly the acclaimed liaison between the Office of the Secretary to Parliament and those of the Administrative Heads of the two Houses.

Arguably, Parliament is punching above its weight in international platforms. Parliament and provincial legislatures have carved their own niche in regional, continental and international parliamentary forums. Both the leadership of national Parliament (Speaker and Chairperson) and Provincial Legislatures and their administrations participate and play important leadership roles in international forums such as Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), Pan African Parliament (PAP), SADC Parliamentary Forum (SADC-PF) and Society of Clerks at the Table (SoCATT) Africa Region and others. Through Parliament’s deepened engagement in international fora, the country’s foreign policy agenda and geostrategic interests have been advanced and the country has been deriving value from Parliament’s participation in these multilateral forums.

More so, in recent years, the South African Parliament has been playing host to a number of international visiting delegations and has organised international conferences such as the recent international conference organised by the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO). All of these show the growing stature of the South African Parliament as one of the leading parliaments both in Africa and in the world.

A question then arises as to why some journalists covering parliamentary news do not write about these positive developments and inspiring transitions in the institution? Why do they decide to turn a blind on them and focus on everything negative?

This is a failure of journalism at its best. And unfortunately, when journalists fail to meretriciously perform their noble public duty of serving the public interests by informing the public and creating an informed and engaged citizenry, democracy fails as well. When journalists start appointing themselves as the more implacable critics of public institutions in general – Parliament in particular – we should start worrying about the future of our democracy. When journalists start embracing jaundiced perspectives that only view public institutions in pathological terms, South Africans have every reason and right to worry about the future of their country and children. When journalists are developing a bewildering penchant for attacking Parliament and its leadership, we should acknowledge a semblance of journalism failure. But more important, we should all know that there is something fundamentally wrong when journalists stop reporting on the law making, oversight and public participation constitutional responsibilities of Parliament and instead, choose to report on innuendos and uncorroborated stories.

The anti-parliamentary posture that has been espoused by some members of the media does not build nor assist the country. What is needed from journalists is for them to meritoriously perform their noble public duty of serving the public interests by informing the public and creating an informed and engaged citizenry. Journalists have a critical role to play in shaping the psyche of the nation and by extension in building the nation. In fact, according to the Turkish scholar, Incilay Cangöz, “serving public interest” has been the main pillar of journalists’ “occupational ideology” – one that is critical to their raison d’être and one they have fiercely defended over the years. Therefore, it goes without saying our journalists in the country need to fulfil a public role and to be of service to the country first and to its people, not individuals, political or economic actors. They need to contribute meaningfully in building the country’s democracy.

Instead of preoccupying themselves with weaving together different strands of half-truths in the hope that they will become truthful, our journalists need to start showing and treating the South African public with much respect. Perhaps they would benefit a great deal from aligning their thinking with the view that attacking Parliament marks not a moral nor an intellectual victory but a great trivialisation of the noble role this institution is playing in our democracy-a constitutionally entrenched duty to carry the hopes and aspirations of South Africans. Moving away from being too divisive and engaging in sensationalising journalism, our journalists might need to start reflecting and locating their normative role in the advancement of both journalism and democracy in this country and stop contributing to their possible failure. DM

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