South Africa

PARLIAMENT

Budget debate homes in on the EFF’s behaviour, a shortage of cash and much unfinished business

Minister of Defence Thandi Modise. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Parliament has a long to-do list, and not very much money as its Budget came in some R340-million short of the requested R3- billion. That’s the upshot of Tuesday’s meandering Budget vote debate, which at its best moments had both sides of the House pledge the national legislature would fulfil its constitutional responsibility of oversight and holding accountable the executive and organs of state.

Parliament’s Budget vote debate — one of seven such debates on Tuesday — unfolded against the confirmation that the EFF’s disruption of Public Enterprise Minister Pravin Gordhan’s Budget vote speech last week Thursday had been referred for “consideration” to the Subcommittee on Physical Removal of Members from Chamber. The announcement was made in seven lines in the Announcements, Tablings and Committee Reports (ATC), or Parliament’s record of work.

References to that disruption cropped up in various debate contributions, but none as bluntly as from DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen who said that stopping someone from speaking in the House was “not a debate, neither is it an act of accountability (but) it is an act of thuggery and democratic sabotage”. And that could not be tolerated, he cautioned, with a nod to history:

We have seen the type of behaviour we witnessed last week: It was on full display in the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic, where the National Socialist German Workers Party, the Nazis, regardless of their relatively small electoral size, they wore boots and uniforms into the House. Sound familiar? Whenever they disapproved of a speaker they either marched out as a body or marched in to disrupt a speaker from making their argument. Sound familiar?”

Earlier in the debate, EFF MP and national spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi argued that the self-proclaimed fighters had “restored the teeth to the fifth Parliament to hold the executive accountable…” and was the only party to increase support in the May 2019 elections.

Each time former president Jacob Zuma appeared in Parliament, “the legitimate protests of the EFF” had made him uncomfortable, said Ndlozi: “Without the EFF there would never have been a new president. In fact there’s no new dawn without the EFF…”

But the linking of this protest action, and the argument that Parliament was a legitimate site of protest in a bid to claim legitimacy in protesting against Gordhan, fell flat in a case of he doth protest too much:

It was a peaceful protest. It was a proper protest,” he said with respect to the unprecedented physical intimidation and a fundamentally unparliamentary act of stepping in front of a speaker at the podium. “You will never tell us how to conduct our own revolution. As long as you disrespect the Public Protector, we will hold you accountable.”

The EFF stood at odds with its proclamation of Parliament as a site of legitimate protest. Other opposition parties and the governing ANC seemed to have found some level of agreement on the House being a site of debate, where argument and ideas must prevail.

And for the first time in many years, there also emerged agreement across the floor of the House about the seriousness with which MPs must uphold their constitutional oversight responsibilities.

Or as National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise put it: “We must be able to follow the rands and cents spent by government and hold people accountable. There must be consequences.” With specific reference to MPs, she added:

Know why you are a public representative. Understand the tools at your disposal – the rules, conventions, and powers… Make laws, ask questions, make statements. Understand the Budget and follow the cents. There are no holy cows.”

Unusually, the Speaker also had words for ministers and their deputies in what signals changes in the running of the national legislature:

Attend the parliamentary committee sessions. Don’t delegate unnecessarily… The temptation for the ministers to be hands-off and ears-off from the financial execution (of their departments) can be detrimental if things are done wrong. So perhaps we must re-understand the reason for the PFMA (Public Finance Management Act) and the MFMA (Municipal Finance Management Act) when the executive authority is and must be held responsible, but pleads innocence.”

Modise cautioned ministers and their deputies that Parliament was tightening up its systems. Deputy President David “DD” Mabuza, in his capacity as leader of government business or liaison between Parliament and Cabinet, would be kept busy, as would be President Cyril Ramaphosa, who would be sent plenty of reports on the attendance of his ministers and deputy ministers, particularly during debates and question sessions.

There’s unfinished business. The Speaker spoke of a pending announcement on how the institution would respond to the Public Service Commission probe it had requested into the September 2018 suicide of senior parliamentary manager Lennox Garane because of workplace bullying. The suicide note, and the funeral notice, were both headed “It’s a protest suicide”, and his family has spoken out freely and publicly.

Modise also spoke about the aim to have closing submissions in August on the ongoing disciplinary hearing of suspended Secretary to Parliament, Gengezi Mgidlana. He was suspended in November 2017 on a number of disciplinary counts after an internal audit report, after initially going on special leave at his request in June 2017.

We are hoping the matter will find rest soon,” she said amid heckling from opposition parties. Steenhuisen said later he was concerned Mgidlana’s contract would expire before any action was taken — the five-year contract ends in November — while the EFF’s Ndlozi didn’t mince his words, calling for the immediate dismissal of Mgidlana:

If you take Parliament seriously the Secretary of Parliament must go.”

Amid the odd dig and verbal spar between political parties, a long parliamentary to-do list emerged – outside of committee oversight or legislative work.

Much of it dates back to the unfinished business of the previous Parliament that now needs to be resuscitated, such as the ad hoc committee to amend the Constitution’s Section 25 to provide for land expropriation without compensation on the back of 2018’s country-wide parliamentary public hearings. Or the processing by various committees of the recommendations from the High Level Panel investigating the impact of legislation, chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe.

But other to-do items are operational: A better public participation model and more effective support for committees beyond the one researcher/one content adviser combo that was agreed to in 1997. While all catering and cleaning staff have been insourced, Parliament has no chief information officer, chief financial officer, head of security or Parliamentary Budget Office director.

Some of it is structural. Discussions with the president and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni are on to shift to elsewhere the continued payment of medical aid contributions of ex-MPs, including those appointed to the Executive or transferred to political parties.

And while a feasibility study was undertaken after Zuma, in his 2017 State of the Nation Address, raised the issue of relocating Parliament north as a cost-saving measure, the report is still outstanding. Or as Modise put it:

We must still get the report. What we were concerned about was how and where this was done. This matter must still be followed up and we will report to the House.”

Some points on the lengthy to-do list are institutional, such as a review of the code of conduct and financial declarations, with an appeal for the joint ethics committee to determine what to do with matters not finalised before the May 2019 elections.

But Modise had made her point.

We are public representatives. Let’s respect the House. Let’s respect one another. We can have a robust debate as we want — use our freedom of speech, but let’s do so responsibly.” DM

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