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Parliament is a big ‘Mabena’ in the democratic project


Lesego More is projects officer of the Democracy Works Foundation.

Parliament’s only actions that have come close to holding the executive accountable have been the establishment of expensive ad-hoc committees — which produce recommendations that tend to disappear into history.

As 2019 reaches its twilight period, it is worth reflecting on some of the year’s political moments, especially those that have exposed the shortcomings of South Africa’s maturing democratic institutions.

The year has not been short in offering critical reflection on South Africa’s politics.

We witnessed horrific acts of xenophobia and gender-based violence in a dreadful September, with the more obvious commentary points being the impact of attacks on foreign nationals on South Africa’s diplomatic ties to the African continent and the country’s reputation as a successful African democracy capable of protecting human rights.

I wish to shift the spotlight slightly and use the events of September to highlight the Mabena (symbol of national disappointment) character of our national Parliament at crucial moments in South Africa’s young democratic project.

A brief breakdown of the mandate, role and responsibility of Parliament to the nation will help the reader appreciate why the title of this article associates our legislature with a Mabena.

The responsibility of any democratic parliament has always been to serve as a platform to represent the voices and interests of citizens. This representation can manifest in various ways but I would like to argue that a parliament’s ability to hold a country’s executive to account, to be responsive to public needs and to adopt and oversee implementation of progressive policies to move society forward are its most important functions.

The issues of gender-based violence and femicide have been a crisis in our society for some time. It was reported in 2018 that South Africa has one of the worst femicide records globally.

In November 2018, survivors of gender-based violence, government and social actors gathered in a presidential summit on these issues. The stakeholders adopted declarations with the potential to change societal behaviour, rehabilitate victims of violence and deal with perpetrators. Our Parliament has the constitutional jurisdiction to take action on the declarations but, true to its Mabena form, it gave no meaningful attention to them.

Parliament’s lack of meaningful intervention in resolving this crisis comes against alarming statics showing that the SAPS logged 443,387 rape cases over the past 10 years. And we know a very small fraction of rapes end-up being reported to the police.

Between November 2018 and September 2019, the only time gender-based violence got proper attention in Parliament was following the murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana. Even at this point, one expected the house to appreciate its role in shaping public morality through dialogue and legislation, and to respond to urgent public calls to reform a legal framework that had failed victims of gender-based violence.

After the death of Uyinene, Parliament called an urgent sitting – supposedly to deal with the crisis. But nothing worth remembering came out of this sitting. Parliamentarians used the moment of crisis to stage a contest over which political party had a better blueprint to fight violence. MPs boldly repeated everything that had already been agreed at the presidential gender-based violence summit.

Parliament has in its arsenal the constitutional power and political mandate to join the fight against gender-based violence. This, however, requires a patriotic placing of national interests before political ones. Parliament would need to do away with its current reactionary culture of waiting for crises to happen before pretending to be active on social issues.

There is a desperate cry from the public for Parliament to take responsibility and act meaningfully on this issue. It could start by simply driving necessary policy reforms as requested at that presidential summit.

Many have said continued violence against African migrants is a result of growing frustrations among victims of inequalities and a stagnant economy that cannot create new jobs.

Inequalities are a result of unfair ownership patterns of resources. The question then is: why hasn’t our Mabena parliament finalised the land expropriation Bill? Why – if the country’s ownership patterns are a stumbling block to the integration of the poor black majority into the economy and continue to threaten the sustainability of democracy?

This is among the rare occasions when there is an easy answer to a complex question. Central to Parliament’s challenges is the fact that the institution sees no real value in representation and carrying out the public voice.

The public is stranded with a democratic institution that claims to be for the people but cannot carry out a public mandate. This is evident in inconsistencies with political party manifestos, particularly on the question of wealth redistribution and identifying land that requires redistribution.

Many of Parliament’s shortcomings are not a surprise after the Chief Whip of the ruling party made an embarrassing admission that certain laws could not be enacted as the National Assembly did not have a quorum on a couple of occasions. Public representatives, direct beneficiaries of public money, failed on more than one occasion to make time to deliberate and vote on matters that could improve the lives of South Africans.

It goes without saying that the National Assembly has drastically failed to hold the executive to account. The most epic failure was the inability to make former President Jacob Zuma pay after the Constitutional Court found he had failed to defend and uphold the Constitution.

Parliament’s accountability crises are not exclusive to the Zuma era. Challenges have been evident from as early as 1996, when Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma lied to Parliament without any consequences about the exorbitant Sarafina 2 HIVawareness tender that was unduly awarded to her close friend.

To cut a long story short, with all the corruption and irregular expenditure in the public sector, the institution supposed to protect the public from abuse of executive power has not once recalled a president or sanctioned a minister for abusing power or misusing state funds. The only actions that come close to holding the executive accountable are the establishment of expensive ad-hoc committees. They produce recommendations which tend to disappear into history.

It is no coincidence there has been a decline in democratic participation and elections in recent history. Stifle democratic consciousness and citizens are bound to retreat from public affairs and politics.

Elected members of parliament remain the most important resource the institution has, and thus a reflection on the institution is a reflection on them.

The casual behaviour of our National Assembly has worsened many of our problems. If we do not see action in holding leaders to account we will continue to have a parliament that is an enemy of social progress and a tax-wasting Mabena. DM


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