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PARLIAMENTARY REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK

All about performance – Parliament sidesteps decisions on Presidency oversight committee — and more

All about performance – Parliament sidesteps decisions on Presidency oversight committee — and more
Speaker of the National Assembly Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

South Africa’s Parliament likes to be seen to be doing something, while actually doing nothing substantive. As a result, it is failing its constitutional responsibilities – and South Africa’s people.

Little better illustrates Parliament’s performative nature than the decision to undertake a study tour to the UK legislature to examine its Liaison Committee (the prime minister’s oversight committee) in July – when British parliamentarians go on recess.

To be fair, the July dates were not finalised at Thursday’s National Assembly programming committee discussion about the non-excursion. And so wiggle room exists to plan for the nine South African MPs to meet UK counterparts to discuss prime ministerial accountability before the British parliamentary summer recess begins on 20 July.

This study tour would “seek to engage political representatives and procedural experts from Westminster as well as the relevant institutions”, according to correspondence dated 11 May seen by Daily Maverick. MPs would determine the “general procedures and conventions” of holding the prime minister accountable, “details of the structure employed to scrutinise” the Office of the Prime Minister, also in relation to its budget and “any procedural challenges encountered by the Commons and its committees in exercising oversight over the Office”.

Coincidentally, the House of Commons Liaison Committee’s workings, including its sessions to interrogate the prime minister on public policy and more, are set out on the UK Parliament website. As is the committee’s founding document, Standing Order 145. Britain also has a parliamentary television channel.

This UK study tour illustrates the performative nature that seems embedded in Parliament, which the Constitution describes as the People’s Assembly. It’s about being seen to be doing something – falling back on procedure, practice and protocol – while kicking qualitative decisions into the long grass.

Deep political divisions have emerged between the governing ANC and the Opposition over a Presidency oversight committee. Amid suggestions that this should be a “legacy matter”, or one for the next, post-election Parliament to consider, it was decided that further research – a study tour, not just desktop research – was necessary. An earlier report from the Parliamentary Budget Office had been deemed inconclusive.

“By the time we leave this Parliament at the end of this term, we have something solid which can be recommend[ed] to the team coming in (after 2024 elections),” said National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula in the 25 April rules committee, which decided on the study tour. 

Political pickle

A parliamentary oversight committee for the Presidency has been a longstanding political pickle for the governing ANC, which is used to publicly protecting its president, regardless of scandals.

When the public outcry over Nkandla refused to go away, Parliament set up two ad hoc committees to deal with the scandal. Their most decisive move was – just before the 2014 elections – to kick to touch a decision on establishing a specific task committee to the next, post-election Parliament.

As it unfolded, a third ad hoc committee, on the back of ANC numbers in the House, absolved former president Jacob Zuma of any repayments as ordered by the Public Protector. The Constitutional Court in a seminal judgment in March 2016 found the National Assembly acted illegally and in a manner “inconsistent with the Constitution”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Damning ruling be damned: Parliament brings obfuscation on ConCourt ruling to new level

Fast forward to 2023. Another crop of MPs, another president, another scandal. It’s the same dithering at best, dereliction of constitutional responsibility at worst.

The governing ANC twice moved to shield President Cyril Ramaphosa from scrutiny over the Phala Phala dollar-stuffed-sofa forex debacle. First, on 13 December 2022, the ANC used its numbers in the House to vote down an independent panel’s recommendation for an impeachment inquiry – yes, even if Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and a handful of others stepped out of line.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Impeachment proceedings against Ramaphosa quashed as few rebels voted ‘yes’ and his loudest critics were nowhere to be seen

Then, on 22 March 2023, when ANC numbers in the House ensured the defeat of a DA motion for an ad hoc committee to investigate the Phala Phala saga, which was backed by a broad opposition front.

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

Closing the accountability circle

The opposition, specifically the IFP, has long called for such a committee to oversee the Presidency, or Budget Vote 1. It’s up for debate on Wednesday, with the President getting his reply on Thursday. 

Without a Presidency oversight committee, right now beyond scrutiny is a direct Budget of R601-million – or R608-million including the presidential R4.2-million salary package and R3.6-million for the deputy, according to the 2023/24 Estimates of National Expenditure.

This all comes against the backdrop of Ramaphosa increasingly centralising power in that office – from infrastructure, investment and intelligence to employment stimulus, climate change and red-tape-cutting and structural-reform accelerating units.

A committee overseeing the Presidency would be a step towards closing the accountability circle, even if it offers no guarantees. The Public Enterprises Committee’s failures on the Eskom corruption, debt and rolling blackouts are one example, with the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) stepping in.

Finesse, rather than blunt numbers in the House, is needed on this – a Presidency oversight committee is no longer just a call from the opposition, but a recommendation of the Zondo Commission.

And one that owing to its high-profile character is deemed as having to be taken more seriously than others. Already the Zondo Commission’s recommendations to improve Parliament’s oversight have either been rejected – such as opposition MPs chairing committees other than public accounts– or they have been declared as already in progress – such as tracking ministerial responses. While the Zondo Commission’s reports have officially been referred to committees, they have yet to reflect in committees’ programmes.

Parliament has two core functions – to pass legislation and to hold the executive, and all organs of state, accountable. In public. 

Performance is what matters

The performance around the Presidency oversight committee shows the full impact of politics, and ANC factional interests, on constitutional governance. Question sessions in the House, of the President, Deputy President and Ministers are similarly performative, with presiding officers ruling objections out of order, “You may not like the answer, but an answer has been given”, or words to that effect.

The performance of answering is what matters, not the quality or substance of the engagement. Neither is law-making unaffected.

In the dynamics between the executive and legislative sphere of state, Parliament has been juniorised.

That Parliament falls in line, to toe the line, was illustrated with the two laws passed speedily – in seven and five months respectively – amid the spin they would stave off greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global anti-money laundering and terror finance watchdog. 

It didn’t. The word by November 2022 was that the South African government knew this. Pressure on Parliament was maintained in keeping with the official spin.

Coincidentally, it took some five months for the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition to gazette the new FATF-compliant beneficial ownership rules, about the same time it took both Houses of Parliament to pass the General Laws (Anti-Money Laundering and Combating of Terrorism Financing) Amendment Bill.

Curiouser and curiouser

Parliament also kowtowed to the executive over electoral amendment legislation. With the minister taking up 18 of the 24 months the Constitutional Court gave the national legislature to change the law so independent candidates could contest provincial and national elections,  Parliament twice had to ask the Constitutional Court for extensions so it could do its job.

Read more in Daily Maverick: MPs approve electoral legislation for 2024 independents despite misgivings, and IEC needs a new commissioner

It gets curiouser.

In an unprecedented move, National Treasu–ry briefed Parliament on a not-yet-tabled – in parliamentary terms, non-existent – Public Procurement Bill. “Subject to final vetting & certification by the Office of the Chief State Law Adviser and proofreading before introduction in Parliament”, it said.

While Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe in his Budget vote asked MPs to deal speedily with the Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill he thinks is before them, it is not. What his ministry sent through failed to meet minimum legislative drafting norms and standards.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Mantashe raises red flag over lack of grid capacity, re-introduces nuclear power to mix

On Tuesday, Parliament’s two Houses will hold simultaneous Budget vote debates on its R3.8-billion allocation, including R471-million in legislators’ salary packages.

As it stands, translation services are so under-resourced and understaffed that simultaneous translation is not possible, the committee section is under pressure and the Bills’ Office is losing institutional memory with the retirement after 41 years of Neil Bell, whom Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana thanked in his Budget speech.

Parliament has no permanently appointed head of Parliamentary Protection Services, the in-house security that’s meant to be in charge of the legislative sphere of state rather than the SAPS, a tool of the executive.

The damage of the 2 January 2022 fire remains unrepaired and unrenovated 17 months later, with the doors to the National Assembly just past the bust of Nelson Mandela chained and padlocked.

Performative administration. Performative oversight. Performative law-making. And in this Parliament fails its constitutional responsibilities – and South Africa’s people. DM

Correction: This Parliamentary Reporter’s Notebook was corrected to reflect that since publication it emerged Parliament has appointed a chief financial officer earlier in May. While no official announcement was made, TimesLive reported this (https://www.timeslive.co.za/politics/2023-05-09-its-taken-five-years-but-parliament-finally-has-a-new-cfo/#:~:text=After%20five%20years%20without%20a,financial%20controls%20and%20strengthened%20governance.)

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jacques Wessels says:

    It all depends what you aim is if you wish to measure performance. Politicians are all about own gain then party and then nothing else really. Society need to stand up to these bullies that pretend to be our caretakers, all of them

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    There is no lack of ministers, but of the staff that do the actual work, not just the talking. They are probably also in dire need of qualified people.

  • Blingtofling HD says:

    I fail to grasp and process the way ANC succeeds in twisting things in their favour. The salaries for zero and unchecked performance goes beyond the pale. I wonder when South African’s will stand together to fight this scurge. Somehow the thieves in parlement seem to get at least that right. As thick as thieves. Strange how one can look at that phrase and analyse it. As thick .. marvelous English language to play on words with.

  • Brian Doyle says:

    Firstly the jaunt overseas for 9 MPs is excessive, and is in fact a paid holiday for them at the height of the northen summer holidays at the expense of the taxpaying public. If you need to send someone over, 3 persons would be sufficient and they should go out of season-October or November when it is a lot less expensive, This is another example of the ANC wasting money.
    Secondly for an oversight commitee they should appoint independent people to first ascertain what there is in the way of an efficient oversight protocol and then make recommendations as to what is required. This would be the most logical way to go, but unfortunately there is no logic in the way the ANC operates

  • Hermann Funk says:

    If these useless morons would stick to existing regulations their performance would improve by 100%. Wasting money of a country that is on the brink of collapse demonstrates that thinking is not part of what they are doing daily.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    But that is more or less how nationalist ruling parties operate; they never like accountability, but always want the accountability to work through their party channels.

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