South Africa

Notes from the House: Parliament reveals all but tells nothing in its annual report

By Moira Levy 29 January 2018

Notes from the House got hold of Parliament’s latest Annual Report, which is no feat of investigative journalism as it is required by law to be made public. All that is needed is the will to make your way through it, knowing that few South Africans know or care what Parliament is all about, and that this report is not going to be of much use to them. By MOIRA LEVY.

First published by Notes from the House

How many citizens can tell you Parliament’s vision or have read its mission statement? Not many, it turns out. In the 2016/17 annual report lodged by Parliament, it is reported that only 9.75% of South Africans are aware of the business of Parliament.

This is troubling, given that Parliamentary is constitutionally entrusted to drive citizen participation, pass legislation and exercise oversight over government performance and delivery.

Its official vision, just so that you know, states that Parliament is “an activist and responsive people’s Parliament that improves the quality of life of South Africans and ensures enduring equality in our society”.

Many citizens could be forgiven if they did not know that. Or had never heard that the mission of our Parliament is officially stated thus: “Parliament aims to provide a service to the people of South Africa by providing:

  • a vibrant people’s assembly that intervenes and transforms society and addresses the development challenges of our people;
  • effective oversight over the executive by strengthening its scrutiny of actions against the needs of South Africans;
  • an opportunity for South Africans to participate in the decision-making processes that affect their lives;
  • a healthy relationship between the three arms of the State that promotes efficient co-operative governance between the spheres of government, and ensures appropriate links with our region and the world; and
  • an innovative, transformative, effective and efficient parliamentary service and administration that enables Members of Parliament to fulfil their constitutional responsibilities.

Very likely that you didn’t know that either.

So how has Parliament done in meeting its constitutional obligations and living up to its own stated objectives? The latest annual report provides some surprises, and lots of confusion.

This report was produced midway through the fifth term of the democratic Parliament, which is a good time to look backwards and take stock, before moving on, say National Assembly Speaker Baleta Mbeki and National Council of Provinces Chairperson Thandi Modise. Their report, in a flash of insight, declares: “In response to a dynamic global context and a renewed urgency concerning local expectations, Parliament must think of new ways of delivering better results to more citizens that rely on the State.”

But then their report collapses into the usual assertions of Parliament being “a robust platform for engagement” and assurances about “Parliament’s commitment to protecting the most vulnerable in society, and the achievement of the national Development Plan”.

So what exactly does Parliament have to say about its performance last year? Apart, that is, from phrases like Parliament “continued to enhance its oversight capacity to ensure greater responsiveness and accountability in government by directing its oversight emphasis towards the budget process and correcting the sequencing of oversight to strengthen financial and fiscal oversight”.

This is the language of any annual report. It is not meant to actually be true or make sense. But buried amid the wordage, citizens want information that they can use to hold Parliament itself to account.

So, what did Parliament really accomplish? In the report, much is made of the anniversary of the final Constitution, whose launch was delayed until 2006 after some cleaning up required by the Constitutional Court was completed. It also reports on the 20th anniversary of the replacement of the old apartheid-style Senate with the National Council of Provinces, thus giving a voice to those at provincial government level.

According to the report, “The leadership collective who pioneered the drafting of the Constitution, leaders of political parties represented in Parliament, Justices, leaders of Chapter 9 institutions, religious leaders and university students paid tribute to the strides made in South Africa’s laudable and evolving constitutional democratic journey.” In other words, apart from acknowledging the significance of these milestones, not much was done to celebrate them. We are told only that this was an “opportunity [which] provides for a reflection on Parliament’s aspirations and the commitments made to the citizenry 20 years ago”.

What can be reported as an achievement was the successful Ad Hoc Committee into the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC’s) fitness to hold office. Not mentioned is the unprecedented Ad Hoc Committee into party-political funding, but that probably belongs in next year’s annual report.

Also important, and known about by very few, is the progress in 2017 towards the finalisation of a protocol agreement between the South African legislative sector and the national and provincial treasuries. This may not sound like much, but it will mean improved communication and relations between Parliament, the Minister of Finance and his provincial counterparts.

The work of the Secretaries’ Association of the Legislatures of South Africa (SALSA), all nine of them, is acknowledged, as is a Bill which aims to formalise the legislative sector as a separate arm of state, which is important to those who believe in the separation of powers.

Also reported on was the High Level Panel, which was set up to look at the impact of legislation passed since 1994 on poverty, inequality, wealth redistribution, unemployment, land reform and nation-building. We are told that this parliamentary project visited every province, drawing crowds of between 500 and 700 participants. Round-table discussions and workshops were held and research conducted. Altogether 6,300 citizens were “mobilised” by this project.

However, nothing was said on the findings of all this research, leaving most citizens to make do with taking a good look around them and making an educated guess about how much has indeed changed in these areas.

This is a 176-page report. There must be more to say about Parliament’s 2016/17 efforts. The report from the Secretary to Parliament spells it out more clearly. We are reminded that the Economist’s Democracy Index concluded that we are a “flawed democracy”, which sounds like both good and bad news. It also mentions our downgrade to junk status. This report was written by the Acting Secretary to Parliament because the actual STP was sent off on special leave following serious allegations of maladministration and abuse of power and now faces suspension. That part’s not mentioned.

Acting Secretary Baby Tyawa reports frankly that Parliament faced considerable financial constraints due to austerity measures, which did impact on the implementation of Parliament’s strategic plan. Steps were taken – “efficiency measures” – which she says are starting to make a difference.

Parliament’s six strategic “outcome-oriented” goals are listed and lots of colourful graphs and infographics are used to illustrate whether Parliament realised its goals, but they are not that easy to make sense of. In short, a statement under “Summary and Trends” will have to suffice: “Annual performance for the 2016/17 financial year is at 49%, with 20 indicators having met their target, and 21 not meeting their targets. This is an improvement of 3.5% from the previous financial year, which was at 45.45%.”

It appears that committees produced 190 reports of different kinds, and between the National Assembly and NCOP an impressive total of 3,630 oral and written questions were submitted. Questions at Parliament are the major oversight tool, so it is unfortunate that it does not say how many of these questions were answered.

Our Parliament held debates on, among other things, a motion of no confidence in the president, the 2016 local government elections, the student fees crises, the challenges facing South African Airways, and how to resolve the crises in Vuwani and restore the people’s right to human dignity and basic services.

The National Assembly passed 24 Bills in the year under review, including the Finance Intelligence Centre Amendment Bill (which had to be returned to the president for a while until he reluctantly relinquished it for assent), and the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Bill, the Plant Improvement Bill and the Performing Animals Protection Amendment Bill, which are probably notable mostly for the amount of time they took to reach the National Assembly. They still have to pass through the NCOP.

As for public participation, 2,656 people visited Parliament during the period under review, there were almost 1.5-million unique website visitors and almost as many viewers on Parliament’s YouTube site. A total of 1,772 broadcasts were made on MultiChoice’s parliamentary channel. How many people actually watched these live broadcasts of committee proceeding and plenaries in the Houses is unknown.

The section on Parliament’s finances runs to 50 pages, so perhaps we can just report that Parliament made a saving of R5.5-million as part of its contribution to the country’s austerity measures. An interesting note confirms that Parliament is not required to return unspent funds to the national revenue fund. These become “retained earnings” along with interest collected and catering sales. Whether this means they can be used to bolster capacity is unclear. DM

Thanks to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group for publishing Parliament’s regular annual report. Parliament and all government departments, including their related entities, are required by law to account in this way. Access all annual reports here.

File Photo: South African Speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete. EPA/NIC BOTHMA


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