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ANALYSIS

Is the Presidency spinning Parliament right round? (Like a record)

Is the Presidency spinning Parliament right round? (Like a record)
President Cyril Ramaphosa in the Free State on 9 April 2022. (Photo: Lihlumelo Toyana)

The spin is on in the tightly controlled optics of the Presidency, with a definitive glass-half-full perspective. Put differently, every moment is seized and every platform is turned into a PR event. Including Parliament.

The Presidency issues its own statements to style President Cyril Ramaphosa answering legislators’ questions as a presidential “briefing” or “update” on national priorities and programmes or interventions.

The latest is Thursday’s session in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), with a Presidency statement proclaiming: “President Ramaphosa to update NCOP on social grant relief and impact of load shedding on service delivery.”

Ahead of a National Assembly presidential Q&A earlier in March, the Presidency statement touted, “President to update Parliament on state capability for economic recovery and the fight against crime.”

It’s a cynical move for control – a president who is giving a briefing is in charge, as opposed to MPs asking questions that might demand accountability from the President. It pushes the kowtowing of Parliament to the executive, even as this is a causal contribution to State Capture, according to the State Capture Commission’s report and recommendations. It’s a tactic that goes back to the Ramaphosa deputy president years. 

Thursday’s NCOP and the earlier 9 March National Assembly presidential question slots, like others, are part of Parliament’s constitutional accountability and oversight tools, and would not exist without parliamentarians’ questions.

Read here

Those questions are submitted about two weeks ahead of time. They are prepped and scripted, unlike the answers to the supplementary questions which can’t be known until they are asked. And in the replies to those four follow-ups to each of the initial (scripted) questions, the controlled PR moments can, and do, go awry. That’s why the Presidency only does social media on Twitter and elsewhere – the first scripted, prepared response. And only those. 

While structurally the Ramaphosa presidency has concentrated power in the Presidency… the optics are now also on the President as the centre of government.

Anyone wanting a full picture would have to go to Hansard – this can take some days to be posted on Parliament’s website – or YouTube, where the parliamentary sessions are available following the online move during the two-year Covid lockdown, followed by the January 2022 fire damage.

In a fast-moving news cycle in post-truth times, the Presidency is taking the gamble that the President’s controlled optics and message will dominate. 

The newly minted deputy president has followed suit. 

“Deputy President Paul Mashatile to brief the National Assembly on his priorities as the leader of government business in the National Assembly,” was the headline – all in caps – of the official statement ahead of his 23 March Q&A in the House.

And while – in response to an ANC sweetheart question – the deputy president did pledge to ensure Cabinet ministers did not fall behind with their obligation to answer parliamentary questions, a follow-up question solicited his view of democracy as majoritarianism.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Accountability, what accountability? Democracy means majority rule, Paul Mashatile tells MPs

Perhaps to sidestep those pesky questions, Ramaphosa opted for televised addresses to the nation during the two-year Covid lockdown – this format is one-way communication.

While structurally the Ramaphosa presidency has concentrated power in the Presidency – from infrastructure, investment and employment stimulus to the National Security Council and intelligence – the optics are now also on the President as the centre of government.

Ramaphosa had “directed Transnet to implement reforms swiftly and completely to turn around the crisis in South Africa’s logistics system” following a meeting with the board and executives that were invited to the Union Buildings, according to the Presidency.

Read here: President Ramaphosa attends to state of South Africa’s logistics system

Not a hint of how this could be regarded as political interference, and no word on Pravin Gordhan, the public enterprises minister actually responsible for Transnet. And Eskom.

Parliament has been at the receiving end of such diminishing treatment, not only over the Presidency styling its question session accountability mechanisms into a presidential update, but also over its status as one of the three spheres of the state.

Parliament was a “branch of government”, according to Ramaphosa, addressing the recent national conference on the Constitution.

Read here: Address by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the National Conference on the Constitution, Gallagher Convention Centre, Johannesburg

To ensure that organs of state execute their constitutional mandates effectively, the legislative branch of government has the power to hold respective executive organs to account and have oversight over the implementation of legislation and the conduct of other organs of state…”

Perhaps it was a speechwriter’s blind spot, but Ramaphosa knows better. Both as a lead negotiator in the Constitution-making, but also as a president who draws on this role for political cred.

Section 44 of the Constitution states that “the national legislative authority as vested in Parliament…” and allows it to amend the Constitution, pass laws “with regard to any matter”, and more. And Section 55 requires the National Assembly to “ensure all executive organs of state in the national sphere of government are accountable to it”, and to maintain oversight.

Yet too much remains beyond scrutiny.

Central is also the lack of a parliamentary oversight committee for the President. A long-standing opposition demand, the ANC in Parliament has sidestepped it. It’s now also a recommendation by the State Capture Commission to improve parliamentary oversight.

“If it (Parliament) wants to be taken seriously by the executive and to be treated with respect, it must make it clear to the executive who calls the shots in Parliament. The executive must also not be allowed to call the shots in Parliament,” the commission report said in its often scathing commentary about the national legislature’s role during the State Capture years. 

But word is that the subcommittee of the rules committee that’s dealing with the State Capture Commission’s recommendation is set on nixing a Presidency oversight committee on the back of ANC numbers. Ditto, a special ad hoc committee on the presidential Phala Phala forex saga…

Read more in Daily Maverick: Phala Phala down: ANC foils parliamentary probe into Ramaphosa scandal despite united opposition)

… and Eskom-organised corruption.

Read in Daily Maverick: ANC nixes opposition-backed special probe into Eskom cartel corruption, Steenhuisen names DD Mabuza

In the absence of tough questions being asked – in committee and in the House – of an increasingly powerful super-Presidency in all but name, the door is wide open to make it all about controlling the spin. 

The Ramaphosa presidency is good at that – Parliament allows it. DM

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