This week is Global Legislative Open Week (GLOW). In view of this, People's Assembly decided to review how open and transparent our provincial legislatures are.
The Constitution enjoins the legislatures to facilitate public participation in the law-making process, conduct their business in an open manner and to take reasonable measures for public access to their committee meetings and sittings of the House.
Committees are the heartbeat of these institutions and the arena where the real work takes place. It is here where MPs and MPLs deliberate and finalise new laws and interrogate government on how they have been performing. One of these committee meetings was live-streamed this week and it is instructive to South Africans to watch - this is the legislature at its best holding government to account. Watching this, an official would be scared to be lazy, or useless, or corrupt.
While the National Parliament does a satisfactory job in being open and transparent, the provincial legislatures are still lagging far behind after 22 years of democracy. Our cursory investigation of current practices reveals varying degrees of performance, with most falling short of their constitutional obligation. Instead of enacting measures to ensure inclusive citizen participation and effective parliamentary monitoring, they remain "closed".
A proper functioning legislature should ensure proactive publication of information. This includes information about its roles and functions, and information generated throughout the legislative process, including the text of introduced legislation and amendments, votes, the parliamentary agenda and schedule, records of proceedings, historical information, and all other information that forms a part of the parliamentary record, such as reports created for or by the legislature. All of this should be broadly accessible to all citizens through multiple channels.
In addition, legislatures must be open spaces where anyone can visit including the media.
A recent report by a journalist who visited the KZN Legislature paints a disturbing picture and demonstrates precedents are being set that are bad news for transparency. Here is an excerpt from an article written by Mayibongwe Maqhina for Independent Online:
We are putting out an appeal to the public and journalists to attend committee meetings in the provincial legislatures. Don't allow our elected representatives to forget that we have right of access. Here is a rundown of how to access your provincial legislature (take your ID) and remember you have the right to be there!
Looking at the provincial legislature websites, only a few provide an up-to-date weekly committee programme. We asked our web administrator, Asanda Nika, to write up her experience of accessing committee meeting info for the nine provinces:
Free State Legislature
The information is not available on the website. It was not easy getting hold of the relevant people because when you call, the phone will ring but there will be no answer. I finally managed to get the cell phone number for Mr Makgotsi. He was helpful and sent the list after I spoke to him. Contact: Mr Lazurus Makgotsi 051 407 1193 / 082 5559982 / email@example.com
The information on the website is updated weekly. The information was available but I did not find it as it was hidden under Resources. I phoned and it took me three days to get the list. I was told the information I needed cannot just be handed over to me as I had to contact the manager, but he was never available. His office number rang and was not answered all three days I tried. The Parliamentary Sessions department gave me his cell number but that just went to voice mail. I received the list on day 4 after I had sent him an email saying that the calling did not help. Contact: Mr Zethembiso Nzuza 033 355 7524 or 8621 / 082 802 6802 / firstname.lastname@example.org
The website has been offline for some time now. The help desk put me through to someone and once I got past the questioning of what was my name, where I was calling from and why I wanted the information, I was put through to the Head of the Committee Section who wanted me to send a formal email but once we told her it was Parliamentary Monitoring Group,she was very helpful: Contact: Ms Tsholofelo Masobe 015 633 8011 / 082 688 3678 email@example.com
The information is on the website but is not updated weekly. The contact person was very helpful, and had promised to send the updated list the following day because there were still some amendments to be made on the programme. I still don’t have the list as yet, I have sent emails – no response. Contact Person: Riette Davis : 013 766 1378 or 1167 / 082 955 8236 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Northern Cape Legislature
The information is not available on the website but there is a link to the contact person and number for each committee. I could not get any person to speak to in this legislature, the number on the website works but you get transferred to a lot of numbers and the phone keeps disconnecting.
North West Legislature
There is no programme available on the website. It was easy to get the information from this province. I spoke to Ms Geanyane, explained what I was looking for and she emailed it immediately. Contact: Maserane Geanyane 018 3927000 / Maserame@nwpl.org.za
Eastern Cape Legislature
The information is on the website but the weekly update was old, but there is a link to the contact details of all the staff.
Western Cape Legislature
The information does not appear on the website but there are photos of past recent meetings. The general number is 011 498 5555 and I asked for the Head of the Committee Section but had to leave a number and am waiting for a call back.
Even though some of the Provinces have a programme on their website it is not easy to find and you do not know how up to date it is. A phone call is supposed to be simple but it’s really a hassle because most of the time you are transferred to different extensions where you end up being disconnected or there is no reply. When you check the website there are numbers for units but even when you get transferred to those units you are either told to speak to the manager or to send a formal request to explain what you will be using the information for. But the contacts we managed to get will be helpful in the future.
Openness and transparency to these legislative bodies applies not only to records and data, but also to the decision-making processes themselves. We can, and should, do better.
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