South Africa

PARLIAMENT ANALYSIS

After five blustering years, the post-election Parliament could turn over a new leaf

After five blustering years, the post-election Parliament could turn over a new leaf
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the National Assembly as part of the Presidency Budget Vote held at the Good Hope Chamber, Parliament in Cape Town, 31 May 2023. (Photo: GCIS)

The incoming Parliament has to chart its way from the sometimes exceptional, often box-ticking mediocre and regular kowtowing-to-ministers that was the track-record of a turbulent five-year term from 2019.

If work is measured in the number of committee meetings, House sittings, committee reports published and public hearings held, the outgoing Parliament boasts a stellar track record. But what’s missing in this numerical fixation is quality.

It’s been a tumultuous five years for this outgoing Parliament that insists on calling itself the Sixth, echoing government’s use of officialese obfuscation that’s unlikely to appeal beyond the bureaucratic echo chamber.

The more than 730-day Covid lockdown of various levels of restrictions was followed on 2 January 2022 by the devastating fire that gutted the National Assembly and severely damaged adjoining buildings. Both tested Parliament’s administration and political leadership.

Parliament fire

Firefighters battle a blaze on the roof of the National Assembly building as smoke billows from a fire flare-up at the South African Parliament National Assembly building in Cape Town, South Africa. 3 January 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Stringer)

Read more in Daily Maverik: Lengthy and complicated construction lies ahead in R3bn Parliament rebuild 

While years of talk of video conferencing didn’t lead to using such tech, in 2020 Parliament quickly went online as a new way of holding committee meetings and plenaries. The upside of this is greater public access for all who have enough data.

However, the drawback is that lawmakers’ votes are no longer recorded individually in the Announcements, Tablings and Committee Reports, or Parliament’s work record.

Political party whips count and declare numbers of their MPs. Individual votes are only recorded in full physical sittings hosted in the Cape Town City Hall, particularly when special constitutional majorities are needed, such as at the impeachment of ex-Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane in September 2023, and in February 2024 of former Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe and Judge Nkola Motata.

All these impeachments were firsts, as was President Cyril Ramaphosa escaping an impeachment inquiry over the Phala Phala dollar-stuffed sofa saga.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ramaphosa’s Farmgate scandal – a timeline of what we know (and don’t know) so far

Another first was Mkhwebane resurfacing as an EFF MP in the National Assembly where, on the justice committee, she proved a spoke in the wheel in the search for a new Deputy Public Protector after previous incumbent Kholeka Gcaleka was nominated for the post in October 2023.

The Deputy Public Protector statutory appointment was kicked for touch for the incoming post-elections National Assembly to decide to revive, alongside a swathe of draft laws that were tabled in Parliament with no hope of even a start in legislative processing in early 2024.

The ministerial rush of tabling draft laws has more to do with Cabinet members ticking off their respective performance agreements with Ramaphosa than it does with law-making.

This is a further twist to the executive leaving its priority legislation to the last year in the five-year term, while ministerial tabling mishaps delayed processes for months and put legislators under greater pressure (read here and here). 

Key bills tabled

Among the last-minute tabling were key bills on overhauling the electricity sector and water management that have long been part of the structural reforms pushed by Operation Vulindlela, the joint initiative between the Presidency and National Treasury.

This week, Operation Vulindlela could boast of its achievements in a briefing from the Union Buildings because Parliament had, by 16 May, adopted the Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill, Water Resources Infrastructure Agency Bill and others like the Public Procurement Bill for greater transparency in state tenders.

That Parliament, despite its own expertise, is caught up in this ministerial and executive business, signals an acceptance of a junior status among the three independent but equal spheres of State with the executive and judiciary as the Constitution describes.

And so, ministers know they can get away with shoddy treatment of Parliament. And they do.

Lawmakers under pressure to pass laws have even forfeited their own legislative wishes, as happened in the controversial General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill, when Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni objected to a deputy intelligence inspector general the legislators had wanted. The Bill passed the National Council of Provinces on 16 May following mumblings that the next Parliament would deal with this legislation afresh.

Parliament during a session to debate the President’s State of the Nation Address, Cape Town, South Africa. 14 February 2017. (Photo: EPA/Nic Bothma)

Nothing better illustrates Parliament relegating itself to a junior role than the Electoral Amendment Act that accommodates independent candidates in national and provincial elections following the June 2020 Constitutional Court judgment. It took Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi over a year to bring his law to Parliament, forcing the national legislature to ask the Constitutional Court twice for extensions.

The ANC-dominated Home Affairs Committee waited for the minister’s bill rather than proceeding with Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota’s private member’s bill that would have allowed for a number of directly elected constituency MPs.

Coincidentally, Motsoaledi was a year late on the Electoral Reform Consultative Panel that was supposed to be established in June 2023, but could only be presented in the National Assembly on 16 May 2024.

And not a word of reprimand either by Parliament or in the Home Affairs Committee report.

Faced with a plethora of court action not only over legislation but also Mkhwebane’s impeachment, controversy over the Secretary to Parliament Xolile George’s salary and the unprecedented resignation of National Assembly speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula under a cloud of corruption allegations, Parliament’s administration battled on.

In many ways, Parliament has not helped itself.

Public participation

In 2018 the National Assembly stepped away from public hearings by submissions to committees to allow for countrywide public hearings on the proposed constitutional amendment for expropriation without compensation.

But instead of returning to the format of public submissions to committees, with improved efforts to facilitate community organisations’ participation, the National Assembly has continued these expensive provincial hearings for all bills, even strictly technical two-pagers.

In doing so, the National Assembly effectively duplicates the National Council of Provinces, which must conduct provincial hearings as the House for provincial interests.

All this has put unnecessary pressure on the National Assembly calendar. It also has required the administration to draw the line so that MPs who are no-shows at public hearings and oversight trips must not repay subsistence and travel allowances, and face the penalty of having to also repay flight, accommodation and other expenses.

Questions over the quality of public participation remain. The criticism of lack of preparation and public outreach ahead of hearings continues. As the YouTube records of several public hearings show, frequently these meetings focus on socioeconomic and other community concerns.

Zondo Commission

With the Zondo Commission central in the public discourse over the past five years, Parliament’s response to its findings was, at best, lacklustre.

The Zondo Commission recommendations were chopped into tiny bits — and distributed by theme to committees. If a committee did anything, it was to have ministers and officials brief MPs on what they were doing, although the hard-working justice committee processed the legislation to establish the Investigating Directorate as a permanent unit in the National Prosecuting Authority.

While quarterly “progress” reports were required from committees, this seemed an administrative internal requirement as none of those reports made it into the public domain.

Ditto, any discussions Parliament might have had to qualitatively deal with the Zondo Commission’s scathing finding of the national legislature’s oversight failures, and thus compliance in allowing State Capture to embed itself.

Instead, recommendations like more opposition MPs as committee chairpersons were dismissed; others were described as already in progress; and the recommendation for an oversight committee for the Presidency after a study tour to the UK parliament was kicked to the incoming Parliament.

In this, the 2019 t0 2024 Parliament was no different to the previous one.

No self-reflection unfolded after the Constitutional Court in March 2016 found the National Assembly had acted “inconsistent with the Constitution” by absolving then-president Jacob Zuma from repaying a percentage for the so-called security upgrades at his Nkandla homestead as ordered by the Public Protector. Then speaker Baleka Mbete said no apologies or resignations were required.

As the clock ticks down to the 29 May elections, Parliament is preparing for the new incoming MPs. It’s familiar prep work for a core of long-serving parliamentary officials, despite a potentially unsettled post-poll Parliament, particularly if coalitions are on the cards.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections hub

In a Parliament where the ANC may return as the largest, but not majority party, new ways of doing parliamentary business could unfold.

Using numbers to push through laws, statutory appointments and more would no longer be that straightforward. Negotiations and compromise may well be required among political parties and independent MPs.

Working across the aisle would help rebuild Parliament as the multi-party institution for “government by the people under the Constitution” and national forum of public debate that works not in the interests of the politicians, but South Africa. It’s what the Constitution demands.

But it’s up to the incoming Parliament. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Generally an accurate summary of the current state of Parliament, unfortunately, things will likely continue in very much the same, ineffective manner in the next Parliament. Parliament has been continually declining in effectiveness and in fulfilling its mandate, and it does not look likely that its functioning will significantly improve.

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