Defend Truth


What is the point of having Parliament?

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Little more than a futile debating society, Parliament has degenerated into the mouthpiece, rubber-stamp and implementer of decisions made at ANC headquarters. Why don't we just replace it with Luthuli House?

Many, many moons ago, when I was young and impressionable, I was carted off to the smog-ridden, bakkie-infested hellhole otherwise known as Pietermaritzburg, was given a sign and told to stand in the sweltering heat for three hours. I had no idea why I was supposed to endure the stench of the rotting vegetables and urine that wafted up from the hot tarmac, but I stood there nonetheless. This was my introduction to the exciting notion of picketing and also my introduction to the utterly uninspired notion of parliament. I’ve hated the notion of protesting outside any sort of government building ever since and my latent disapproval of Maritzburg solidified into a boiling, pungent loathing.

All sorts of thoughts cross your mind when you stand outside a government building holding up a large sign. If your intelligence is above that of a drowned dachshund, you must at some point ask yourself whether the people inside are paying you any attention at all.  You think of them in their air-conditioned offices and wonder whether they aren’t secretly laughing at you. You silently beg them to offer some sort of a gesture – a sign that your effort isn’t a complete waste. When they do acknowledge your disgruntled presence, you rejoice. See, you’re a part of democracy! You’re making a difference.

You can, therefore, appreciate that the splendour of my rage defied description when I discovered that our national Parliament is utterly useless.

I discovered that it’s nothing more than the most expensive debating society in the country a long time ago, but to illustrate my point, the parliamentary committee on defence recently requested of the minister of defence to release an interim report on service conditions in the military. When she refused to hand the documents over, the MPs halted their debate on the Defence Amendment Bill, which was effectively holding the defence budget to ransom.

After a few phone calls to the right people at Luthuli House, and a very stern letter to the portfolio chairman Nyami Booi, the MPs capitulated and debate resumed.

And that’s my quarrel with Parliament. It’s a joke to think that the rules in this country are made in the pews of the National Assembly. Luthuli House runs everything. Parliament is nothing more than an elaborate sham. Much like despots who hold “democratic” elections, our Parliament is only there to give our government the trappings of democratic rule.

I get how Parliament became the way it is today – under the evil National Party regime, it didn’t have a Constitutional Court peaking over its shoulder. It was effectively the highest lawmaking body in the country. It’s how they managed to legally justify apartheid for all those years. As long as Parliament allowed it, that was that. When 1990 rolled around and serious negotiations began, they decided to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction under the new dispensation, by neutering Parliament. The policy of deployment effectively transformed our government system into a Soviet-style top-down bureaucracy where a select few dictated to everyone else.

Parliament is not the base of power it is meant to be. If our national Parliament was a true reflection of where the power lies, half the seats would belong to Cosatu. And the DA would have one seat only.

Think of the two important bills Parliament will debate in the near future, the Protection of Information Bill and the piece of legislation which would create a media appeals tribunal. The fight over these two ideas was taken straight to Luthuli House. Nobody said, “Well, let’s wait until this is before Parliament. We’ll tackle it there.” The MPs couldn’t even face down Lindiwe Sisulu. Can you imagine any of them taking on Siyabonga Cwele?

As it is, the amount of money spent on Parliament is ridiculous and unjustifiable. Why should we fork out millions every year when these MPs in and of themselves do no service to the country?

The most useful thing Parliament ever did was the day the honourable members roused themselves from their government-issue-lunch-induced siestas to recall Thabo Mbeki as president. And even then, they were only following orders from the ANC’s national executive committee.

Imagine a South Africa with no Parliament. We’d be spared the horrifying spectacle of Patricia de Lille (who insists wearing what can only be described as polyester curtains – and I’m being very kind) at the opening of Parliament. There’d be no floor-crossing saga. No Travelgate scandal. No Diane Kohler-Barnard.

The ANC should stop pretending as if Parliament has any say in governance. They should dissolve it once. We’d be saving a ton of money every year, and it would make our politics a lot more honest. DM


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