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What happens if the two houses of Parliament are controlled by different parties?


Pierre de Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he is head of the Department of Public Law. He writes a blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

The ANC provincial executive committee in KwaZulu-Natal has called for the scrapping of provinces and for the functions of the provinces either to be transferred to national or local governments. One of the interesting issues not raised in the proposal is what will happen to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) if provinces are scrapped. As a party that loses a majority in the National Assembly might well hold on to a majority in the council, it may also not be in the interest of the current governing party to scrap the council, which could serve as a check on the exercise of government power.

Because the ANC currently controls both the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces with overwhelming majorities, it is probably mainly constitutional nerds like myself who wonder what will happen if the two houses of Parliament are controlled by different political parties.

When commentators talk about the possibility of the governing ANC receiving less than 50% of the votes in the next national election in 2019 (or in the election after that in 2024), they almost always assume that this would allow a coalition of opposition parties to form a government and to pass the legislation they deem fit.

Such commentators are correct that any number of coalition parties who, together, can muster more than 200 votes in the National Assembly can elect the president of their choice. That president (probably the leader of the largest coalition party) will then form a government in terms of a coalition agreement hammered out between the various coalition parties.

(As an aside: at this stage I would be rather surprised if the ANC received less than 50% of the votes in the national election in 2019 – although this can change, depending on what happens at the ANC elective conference in December this year.)

But the South African Parliament consists of two houses – the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces – and it is very possible that one party (or a coalition of parties) could control the National Assembly, while another party (or coalition of parties) could control the NCOP, potentially creating a set of checks and balances on the exercise of power by the president and his or her government and potentially making it more difficult for Parliament to pass legislation.

To understand how this might work, it is important to understand that the NCOP was created to represent the interests of provinces in the national Parliament. The council consists of 90 delegates – 10 from each province – and each 10-person delegation is comprised of MPs in proportion to the support each political party enjoys in the specific provincial legislatures.

For argument’s sake, if the ANC receives 50% of the votes in North West province, the DA 30% and the EFF 20%, the North West provincial legislature will send five ANC delegates, three DA delegates and two EFF delegates to the NCOP.

This illustrates that if provinces are scrapped, the sections of the Constitution dealing with the NCOP and its powers will also have to be scrapped or amended, requiring a fundamental overhaul of the Constitution. As there will be no provincial legislatures to nominate NCOP delegates and to provide negotiating and voting mandates to provincial NCOP delegations, the council would either have to be scrapped or would have to be composed in an entirely different manner.

As each province is represented by an identical number of delegates (10) and as provinces differ dramatically in size, a party (or coalition of parties) might well control a majority of NCOP delegates (and – this is also an important point – a majority of provincial delegations in the NCOP), while not controlling the majority in the National Assembly.

For argument’s sake, the ANC could win 45% of the votes nationally, giving them almost exactly 45% of the seats in the National Assembly. If a number of former opposition parties could cobble together a coalition it could control more than 50% of the seats in the National Assembly, allowing it to elect a president and form a government. But at the same time, the ANC could still obtain a majority in five or six provincial legislatures, giving them effective control over the NCOP.

What happens then?

As noted, the party (or coalition of parties) that commands a majority in the National Assembly elects the president and speaker of their choice and forms the government. But if the government wishes to pass legislation, it will not only need a majority in the National Assembly, but will often also have to secure a majority in the NCOP.

If the legislation concerns an issue that does not affect the provinces and the NCOP rejects the legislation or amends it, the National Assembly can override this NCOP rejection by reconsidering the legislation and passing it again with a simple majority. When the NCOP votes on such legislation, each delegate in the NCOP votes as an individual. This means that a party (or coalition of parties) who has mustered at least 46 votes in the NCOP will control the NCOP when such legislation is being considered.

But this will not be particularly important because when NCOP members vote as individuals, the National Assembly will always be able to override any vote from the NCOP by passing the legislation again with a simple majority. So if the Parliament wishes to pass legislation on the SABC, the Hawks, or SAA, or if it wants to pass the annual Budget, the National Assembly can always override the NCOP.

But the situation changes dramatically when Parliament is called upon to pass legislation that affects the provinces. In such cases, individual NCOP members do not vote. Instead, each of the nine provincial delegations have one vote which is cast on their behalf by the head of the delegation. This vote is cast in terms of a mandate granted to it by the relevant provincial legislature in terms of a process prescribed by legislation.

It is for this reason that it could become rather important which party (or coalition of parties) controls each of the provincial legislatures as the party (or coalition of parties) that controls at least five provincial legislatures will – as I will presently explain – be able to exercise an effective veto over the passing of some legislation.

Such legislation will include legislation on a wide array of important issues, including:

  • Agriculture
  • Education at all levels, excluding tertiary education
  • Environment
  • Health services
  • Housing
  • Public transport
  • Tourism
  • Trade
  • Welfare services

Where one party (or coalition of parties) controls the National Assembly and another party (or coalition of parties) controls the NCOP, it could become difficult for Parliament to pass legislation on these topics affecting the provinces.

Where the NCOP rejects legislation already passed by the National Assembly, or where it passes the legislation with amendments, the Constitution provides for a complicated deadlock-breaking mechanism to resolve the impasse. This mechanism – a Mediation Committee – is too technically complex to explain in an article such as this.

But, to simplify matters somewhat, at the end of the mediation process both houses will still have to pass the legislation with a simple majority for it to become law. If both the National Assembly and the NCOP failed to pass the legislation, the National Assembly would only be able to get its way if it could muster a two-thirds majority in support of the legislation. This is unlikely to occur because no party (or coalition of parties) will control two thirds of the seats in the National Assembly when it and the NCOP are controlled by different parties.

This means that as far as legislation affecting the provinces is concerned, the NCOP is in a far more powerful position to influence or even block legislation supported by the National Assembly than is the case with legislation not affecting the provinces. In other words, in such cases the NCOP is in a powerful position to thwart the legislative agenda of the government. This is because the NCOP represents the interests of the provinces in the national Parliament, requiring it to have a decisive say on legislation affecting the provinces.

These rather complicated mechanisms are aimed at facilitating co-operation and seeking consensus between the two houses of Parliament in line with the principle of co-operative government.

They also ensure that the National Assembly, with its 400 members representing the various political parties proportionally to their electoral strength, would not be able to ride roughshod over the NCOP, whose delegates are equally divided between all provinces.

But one must not overstate the power of the NCOP. Unlike the National Assembly, which is given the explicit power to hold the executive accountable (and can remove the cabinet ministers or the president with a vote of no confidence) and to fulfil an oversight function over government departments, the NCOP is not explicitly given such powers. There is no way that the NCOP could, for example, remove the president from office with a vote of no confidence.

Although the Constitution states that members of the Cabinet are individually and collectively accountable to Parliament as a whole, it significantly only explicitly grants this power to the National Assembly to hold the executive organs of state (including members of the Cabinet) accountable. But both the National Assembly and the NCOP has the power to summons anyone – including the president and cabinet ministers – to appear before it and to report to it.

This possible ambiguity could become problematic when the NCOP and the National Assembly are controlled by different parties. The NCOP (in effect controlled by the opposition party or parties) might wish to flex its muscle by calling cabinet ministers or the president to the NCOP to report to it. The cabinet ministers or the president might argue that they are really only accountable to the National Assembly and might be reluctant to subject themselves to a hostile grilling by a majority of NCOP delegates.

In any event, while the NCOP is currently rightly viewed as the weaker and politically far less powerful house of Parliament, this may change if the NCOP is controlled by a different party than the parties controlling the National Assembly. It will be at this point that the opposition party that controls the NCOP might be thankful that it did not abolish the NCOP entirely along with the provinces whose interests it is supposed to serve and protect. DM


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