Opinionista Siviwe Gwarube 31 October 2019

Parliament again found wanting on fulfilling its critical oversight role

The executive has absolutely no regard for Parliament because a culture of ‘fake accountability’ has been allowed to prevail. The accountability mechanisms, such as questions to the ministers, deputy president and the president are never taken seriously. Instead, every effort is made to protect the executive from accounting as they should to Parliament and by extension to the public.

The South African Parliament has consistently been found wanting when it comes to performing its critical and constitutionally enshrined role. This has been reiterated and demonstrated on numerous occasions.

One such moment was the Constitutional Court judgment handed down in 2017 on the matter between the Economic Freedom Fighters, United Democratic Movement, Congress of the People, the Democratic Alliance and the then Speaker of the National Assembly.

These parties sought the intervention of the judiciary because it became abundantly clear that Parliament was incapable of doing its job and holding the executive to account by providing mechanisms that would deal with former president Jacob Zuma for failing to implement the recommendations of the Public Protector on the Nkandla matter.

This was once again so evident during the State Capture testimonies that it prompted the Deputy Chief Justice to intimate that an investigation into Parliament’s role in overlooking State Capture should be launched.

Executive shielding has been the consistent theme of our country’s Parliament. It was the case in the fifth Parliament and is seemingly the case in the sixth Parliament.

There is a fundamental lack of understanding of what the role of Parliament is and how critical the principle of separation of powers is in a constitutional democracy. Instead of vigorously and jealously guarding the integrity of Parliament as an institution, the ANC often uses its numbers in the National Assembly, the National Council of Provinces and in portfolio committees to simply undermine the role of Parliament and the people who have elected Members of Parliament to serve.

The party continues to demonstrate its disdain for the institution through big and seemingly insignificant ways.

The two Houses of Parliament often — through their presiding officers and the portfolio committee chairs — refuse to hold the executive to account.

The executive has absolutely no regard for Parliament because of a culture of “fake accountability” which has been allowed to prevail. The accountability mechanisms such as questions to the ministers, deputy president and the president are never taken seriously. Instead, every effort is made to protect the executive from accounting as they should to Parliament and by extension to the public.

When ministers and their deputies appear In portfolio committee meetings to present annual reports, strategic plans or to account on specific issues, Members of Parliament leave those meetings none the wiser. Their efforts to interrogate and demand answers are thwarted by chairs of committees and the ANC majority.

This past weekend, Parliament’s portfolio committee on health hosted public hearings in Mpumalanga to hear the views of ordinary citizens on the National Health Insurance Bill. This is a process critical to the work of law-making.

Instead of these hearings being used to sincerely consult, educate and obtain public sentiment, they became a “clash of the buses”. The ANC packed the halls with party supporters — an act which is not only wrong, but completely distorts the findings of the process. To really demonstrate the utter disdain for the public participation process, there were fake leaflets which were distributed calling for the support of the bill, embellished with parliamentary staff details to create an impression that this was a legitimate document from Parliament.

The millions of people that we serve rely on public institutions to guard their independence, be on their side, educate and assist them to make informed choices about legislation that will affect their lives. To mislead people for narrow political gains is, quite frankly, fraud and should be called out as such.

The ANC has over the years treated Parliament as an extension of itself. It has never truly committed to upholding the role that legislators must play. It has never demanded excellence from Cabinet ministers regarding the work they have been appointed to do. It is an indictment that a great institution that has the ability to conduct its work on behalf of the people of South Africa is reduced to some rubber-stamping desk.

One almost gets the sense that the ANC views the legislative process as its own policy wing and not an independent and credible institution of Parliament.

There are many examples around the world of how countries have in fact strengthened the arm of their parliaments or legislatures by allowing members of opposition parties to chair portfolio committee meetings, more frequent oral question sessions in parliament and far more direct accountability demanded from the executive.

One can only conclude that these mechanisms are available to South Africa, but can never be implemented until we elect people who will take their mandate to serve the public seriously. It is only when the interests of the people of South Africa outweigh party political interests that the legislature in our country will function optimally. DM

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