First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
In a curious political tick, upbeatness often accompanies new leadership, even in the absence of evidence that a new appointee would do anything qualitatively better than the previous holder of the position.
Such optimism unfolds even in controversy such as the formal, tick-box election of former defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to lead the 400 lawmakers of 14 political parties in the National Assembly.
Governing ANC numbers in the House, 230 MPs, mean it can push through its choice, never mind concerns or contest. And governing ANC tradition means it will circle its wagons for Mapisa-Nqakula.
By all accounts, she was accepted without question or comment after being named for the Speaker’s post by ANC National Chairperson Gwede Mantashe in last week’s special caucus. That’s how deployment works.
That the ANC parliamentary caucus views its role as following the marching orders delivered from Luthuli House may benefit some political careers – but it doesn’t do much for Parliament’s constitutional responsibilities of oversight and holding ministers, officials and public office holders to account.
The State Capture commission hearings highlighted a slow approach, at best contradictory and at worst derelict, to overseeing executive exercise of power. But as ANC witnesses such as Mantashe told the commission: governing party MPs were elected on an ANC ticket to carry out party decisions.
Mapisa-Nqakula’s deployment to the National Assembly done and dusted, questions must be asked. Will she hit the ground running? Which side will she align herself with in the parliamentary corridor factional politicking? Who will she depend on for counsel?
Will her deployment ratified by the required election in the House on the back of ANC numbers lead to, for example, the appointment of a permanent Secretary to Parliament – Baby Tyawa has been acting since June 2017? Or to the settling of the legal action that 69 Parliament Protection Services started in January 2017 over the better pay and employment conditions of the so-called bouncers hired in 2015?
Those are pressing institutional demands. But pressing demands for sharp and decisive parliamentary oversight have emerged in South Africa’s 17 months of a State of Disaster, renewed every month since June 2020 after the initial three-month declaration.
The Covid-19 restrictions – Saturday marks Lockdown Day 513 – have further undermined already dithering state services. Never mind all the talk about a capable, developmental state.
The long queues at labour offices and at the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) testify to sustained unemployment as over a million jobs lost in hard lockdown in March 2020 remain lost, and to deepening poverty and hunger.
Queues form outside home affairs offices – no ID, no official support – and at the Masters of the High Court offices, where deceased estates are left crawling towards finalisation; and at the deeds office, where the snail’s pace of property transactions is affecting the urban economy.
Queues snake along at traffic departments and municipal offices.
Queues start in the very early hours of the morning because word’s out that only 50 people a day are helped because only 50% of officials can be in the office due to Covid-19 protocols. Everyone knows: if not early in the queue, no assistance; forcing another outlay for transport to return some other day.
Officials get paid their full salaries whether they put in a full day’s work or not, entrenching a new labour aristocracy.
Parliament’s committees have yet to scratch the surface of such service delivery failures, and to do the necessary oversight in sufficiently forceful tones to get officialdom to change its ways.
New leadership at the National Assembly doesn’t change lackadaisicalness. Only commitment to being an elected public representative rather than a party hack will do that, alongside honouring the oath of office to “obey, respect and uphold the Constitution”. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.