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Parliamentary oversight: The system is broken and major...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Parliamentary oversight: The system is broken and major reforms are needed

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Narend Singh is Chief Whip of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Is it fair to paint all MPs with the same brush and make the blanket statement that ‘Parliament is ineffective in its oversight role’? Should we not, rather, admit that the system is failing us and that a change is needed?

The question “is Parliament effective in its oversight role?” has been bandied about in the media over the past week. The response from the public on social media and elsewhere was an almost overwhelming “no”.

However, is this the right question to be asking?

We need to take a step back and examine the institution of Parliament. We need to look at how it functions, we need to look at who the people tasked with holding the executive accountable are and, most importantly, how they got there.

On face value, the system should work.

Members of Parliament are, after all, democratically elected public servants. They are appointed per the Constitution of South Africa, and before they take up their duties, “they must swear or affirm faithfulness to the republic and obedience to the Constitution”. Further, the “National Assembly is elected to represent the people”, and tasked with, among other things, holding the executive to account “by scrutinising and overseeing executive action”.  

However, MPs are also representing their political parties, and at times, this allegiance seems to take precedence over their oath of obedience to the Constitution, and their responsibility to represent the interests of all the people of South Africa, not just those in their own party.

Thanks to the proportional representation voting system, the “distribution of seats in Parliament is proportional to the number of votes cast for the various parties”. The governing party was therefore allocated the most seats in the National Assembly, which results in them frequently having the majority in the various portfolio committees. This, in turn, dilutes the ability of the committees to demand accountability from the executive, as questions and suggestions from opposition MPs are often quashed.

Just one example of this is the infamous ad hoc committee on security upgrades at Nkandla. I was a member of this committee and, on the very first day, I implored that we request a declaratory order on the powers and functions of the Public Protector. The governing party members used their majority in the committee to shut down my request. Because party interests were put before the interests of the people, it took almost two years to “resolve” the Nkandla debacle, and the taxpayers carried the costs.

A democracy is a space for debate, a plurality of voices. MPs should have the freedom to ask the difficult questions, without fear or favour – even if it is their own party that needs to be taken to task for actions that harm the country. I sit on several committees, as well as participate in ad hoc committees. It has been my experience that MPs will be more vocal about issues at committee level, but when the discussion moves to the National Assembly, they tend to wax lyrical. They toe the party line, for fear of losing their seats.

If MPs were allowed to unpack and interrogate issues, and reach conclusions based on the facts before them – and not the instructions from their political masters – the portfolio committees would be able to perform their functions as intended. Instead, it is left to opposition MPs to attempt to hold the executive to account. An examination of the minutes of any number of committee meetings will show that contentious issues are often raised, but the majority then sweeps them under the rug.

Is it therefore fair to paint all MPs with the same brush and make the blanket statement that “Parliament is ineffective in its oversight role”? Should we not, rather, admit that the system is failing us and that a change is needed?

Another clear indication that the system needs to be rebooted is the failure of ministers to respond timeously to written questions. Under the second session of the sixth Parliament, 172 questions “lapsed”. Some of these unanswered questions date back to April 2020, with the minister of police being the worst offender, with 38 questions from 2020 left unanswered. The minister of transport is not far behind, with 33 unanswered questions. When questions lapse, they remain unanswered, and there is no penalty for the minister.

If a party wishes to get answers, they are obliged to resubmit the original question under the new session of Parliament. Not only does this result in unacceptable delays in the pursuit of information, but the party also then loses the opportunity to ask new questions.

One of the 2020 IFP questions that lapsed was addressed to the minister of public service and administration and related to reference checks on persons looking for employment in the public service. The employment of persons with fraudulent qualifications or criminal records is a serious matter and has a direct impact on service delivery. We will therefore be submitting this question again, in the interests of holding the executive to account. 

Again, it is the system which is failing us.

Opposition parties – and NGOs – are forced to embark upon costly and time-consuming litigation in the pursuit of accountability, leaving the courts to take up Parliament’s oversight role.  

If we want to ensure that accountability becomes the order of the day, we will have to fix the system in Parliament. Electoral reform is needed, so that more voices can be heard, and ministers need to face tangible consequences – and penalties – if they fail to execute their duties. DM

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