The honourable year that wasn't...

Dec. 11, 2014 (5 years, 9 months ago)

By Monique Doyle and Rashaad Alli

The legislature’s sittings have been the source of regular drama, comedy and even bloody action since the start of the fifth Parliament. Often maligned for being dull, perfunctory and peripheral Parliament was in the limelight this year for various controversies and mayhem.

While all the action is too much to enumerate, this review will attempt to wade through the key highlights of this eventful Fifth Parliament and to look ahead.

A colourful and animated opposition

Following the fifth democratic elections in May 2014, Parliament opened its doors to new political parties and Members (approximately 52% of the National Assembly Members are new and 86% of NCOP permanent delegates are new).

The EFF made its presence known from the get go introducing new red attire to Parliament in the form of overalls, hard hats and berets in representation of the working class.

It had promised to shake things up and was true to its word. The status quo - represented by the rules, practices, conventions, dress code and language used in the legislature – was not just accepted but vigorously challenged by the EFF. The party, to borrow a boxing parlance, knew how to roughhouse and was prepared to use this tactic.

Energised and bolstered by the EFF, most opposition parties followed suit and became increasingly obstinate and confrontational with the ruling party and the presiding officers, who they viewed as partisan. They were no longer casual observers and meek objectors.

While many have correctly argued that the skirmishes and sideshows are a distraction and have eroded the legislature’s stature, there is no doubt that Parliament is a more interesting place these days. This is in large part due to the antics of the EFF and the other opposition.

Controversy

It was during a question time in the National Assembly where the EFF cemented its mark on the new Parliament. The party was not happy with an answer provided by President Zuma about his Nkandla private residence demanding to know when he would reimburse the state for certain additions to his home in line with the recommendations proposed by the Public Protector. When the President failed to give a satisfactory response (in their view), they started banging on tables and chanting the phrase “pay back the money”. Repeated requests by the Speaker that they stop chanting and vacate the chamber were defied and consequently, the session was suspended. The fallout was swift, with Parliament appointing a committee to review the EFF’s conduct and recommend possible disciplinary action in terms of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act. The Powers and Privileges Committee recommended that 6 Members be suspended without pay for 30 days. Another 6 should be suspended for 14 days without pay while the last 8 should apologise in the house and be fined an amount equal to 14 days’ pay. There was a brief suspension of hostilities when the Deputy President negotiated a deal with opposition parties that disciplinary proceedings against the EFF will be held in abeyance in return for assurances that they will respect parliamentary rules. This deal quickly fell apart when the DA pushed ahead with a motion to censure the President for failing to appear before the House at least once every term. The EFF has since instituted legal action to overturn this decision on their suspension.

An ad hoc committee was established to deal with President Jacob Zuma’s response to the Public Protector’s report on the R246m taxpayer-funded security upgrades to his private residence. Opposition parties, took the unusual step of jointly boycotting the committee after a couple of meetings and declined to take part in the deliberations. They described the committee’s findings as a “whitewash” and have threatened to challenge it. The report apportions blame to the architect and officials in the SAPS, Department of Public Works and SANDF for the cost overruns. It also contradicted the Public Protector and found that the President is not in violation of the Executive Members Ethics Code. During the plenary debate on the report, matters escalated when riot police entered the National Assembly chamber to escort an EFF MP out. Scuffles broke out, which left a few DA MPs injured and criminal charges being laid. This unprecedented action (police presence in the chamber) has raised fundamental questions about the decorum of MPs, the role of the Speaker and existing legislation and the rules of the legislature.

Take Your Seat

The speaker and other presiding officers have had a difficult task chairing plenary sessions. Almost every sitting was a battlefield where decorum was disregarded and unruliness reigned. Spurious point of orders, filibustering, walkouts, every ruling scrutinised and obscene hand gestures were the order of the day and tested even the most unflappable.

Baleka Mbete and Thandi Modise were accused of being partisan and the former even faced a motion of no confidence. Everyone is in agreement that a presiding officer has to apply the rules fairly, impartially and consistently otherwise this will undermine the legislature and bring it into disrepute. Similarly, MPs have an obligation to behave appropriately and to use the proper channels to address their grievances.

The next four and a half years will be long unless political parties find a way to diffuse the tension and work with the speaker. Current attitudes and pronouncements are not encouraging.

Behind the Scenes

Whilst overshadowed, committees remain a vital platform where the real work of Parliament takes place. More than 800 committee meetings were held by the Fifth Parliament compared with the roughly 65 sittings arranged by the National Assembly and NCOP. The first important matter that the new Parliament had to consider was whether the number of National Assembly Committees should be reduced. The ANC had proposed that Portfolio Committees did not need closely mirror national departments and they could be clustered together in a similar way to the NCOP. The ruling party argued that clustering would enhance efficiency. Opposition parties disagreed with this view and countered that this would undermine oversight and accountability. It was eventually agreed that the status quo would prevail. This meant 32 Portfolio Committees in the NA were established and 11 Select Committees in the NCOP.

Most of the committee work was confined to budgets and annual reports. Committees were hard pressed to meet the deadlines during the budget approval process with many MPs expressing concern about the short timeframes.

Notably, the Portfolio Committee on Labour hosted several workshops to discuss whether South Africa should introduce a national minimum wage. This follows a request by President Jacob Zuma in his State of the Nation Address that this matter be investigated as a mechanism to alleviate poverty and inequality. The Committee invited stakeholders, including labour unions, employer organisations, academics and experts to have their say. Participants differed widely and cited varying statistics and data (sometimes even contradictory) to support their position, with views ranging from non-committal, rejection, qualified support and outright support.

Most Committees hit the ground running as soon as the Fifth Parliament opened its doors while others are still finding their feet. To date, the performance of Committees have been uneven with several Committees making a definitive impact, tackling salient matters with the Executive counterparts closely at hand while other Committees perhaps need more time to establish themselves.

Legislation

Legislation took a backseat as new Ministers came to grips with their portfolio, MPs learnt their jobs (remember the majority are new) and committees deal with pressing matters. Of the 12 Bills introduced in the 5th Parliament, 9 were passed. These Bills were largely of a financial nature and include:

  1. Financial Management of Parliament Amendment Bill
  2. Development Bank of Southern Africa Bill
  3. Legal Aid Bill
  4. Attorneys Amendment Bill
  5. Adjustments Appropriation Bill
  6. Division of Revenue Amendment Bill
  7. Rates and Monetary Amounts and Amendment of Revenue Laws Bill
  8. Tax Administration Laws Bills
  9. Tax Laws Amendment Bill

Leftover bills from the 4th Parliament, such as the Integrated Coastal Management Amendment Bill and the Rental Housing Bill were revived and passed by Parliament. Not a single Private Members Bill, which have so far only been introduced by opposition MPs, has been accepted. These legislative proposals are following an almost certain death. The Medicinal Innovation Bill might buck this trend. The proposed law by late- IFP MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini to legalise marijuana for the treatment of cancer was re-tabled in Parliament again following his death.

Recently, the Constitutional Court ruled that Parliament had failed to sufficiently address all the unconstitutional aspects in the South African Police Service (SAPS) Act as previously ordered. The court fixed the defects itself, by cutting out the offending words and sections.The former speaker expressed concern about the quality of legislation that is passed in Parliament a few years ago.

_“I am concerned that more and more legislation is returned to the National Assembly for correction – either section 75 legislation which the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) has recommended that the Assembly amends to make it constitutional, or legislation that was found to be unconstitutional by the courts. This speaks both to the constitutionality of the legislation passed, as well as its quality”

“The poor quality of legislation is often the consequence of inadequate scrutiny. As the subject matter of legislation becomes more sophisticated and highly technical, our Parliament and members must become more professional. This requires the necessary capacity both in terms of technical support by the officials and capacity building for Members”. _ Parliament must be mindful of this given the controversies around the the Protection of State Information Bill and the Private Security Industry Regulatory Amendment Bill as well as claims that legislation was being bull-dozed.

Looking ahead

The rules have been the source of much anger, frustration and irritation. The deficiencies are obvious and the review that was started in the 4th Parliament should be urgent, inclusive, comprehensive and thorough.

Parliament is yet to finalise and publish its strategic plan. This is important as it will set out the legislature’s vision and objectives and set out measurable targets. The previous Parliament made a commitment to review the impact of legislation it has passed on ordinary people. It will be interesting to see if this is taken forward.

The President’s next appearance at the opening of Parliament and future question sessions in the National Assembly is eagerly anticipated.

Many departments have announced plans to introduce legislation so Parliament will be doing some heavy legislative lifting next year. These vary from the mundane to the important and controversial.

Awards and brickbats

PMG would like to hand out these awards and brickbats:

Edna Molewa (ANC): The Minister regularly attends meetings of the Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs. She has excellent working relations with the committee and must have set some kind of record when she attended 6 consecutive committee meetings. Meanwhile, some of her colleagues have been criticised for poor attendance. The Minister is an example and should be emulated.

Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry: It is a pleasure to watch this Committee in action. It is superbly led by the hardworking and knowledgable Joanmariae Fubbs (ANC).

Filibustering: Is a new phenomenon in South Africa. While it does serve a particular purpose and can bring amusement, it is mostly inane. We hope it does not become a permanent fixture.

Khanyisile Litchfield-Tshabalala (EFF) and Mmamoloko Kubayi (ANC): Have made an impression and know how to capture an audience. Both are intelligent, combative and eloquent.

Parliament’s Youtube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/ParliamentofRSA): Forget Hansard! You no longer need to trawl through hundreds of pages when there is a better alternative. Yes, there have been legitimate questions about the feed being cut on a few ocassions. While this needs to be addressed, the channel has been an important development in increasing access. To those looking to reminisce, the action is just a click away.

Committee Programmes: While it would be an exaggeration to say that this is a major problem, it is nevertheless worrying when committees fail to inform the public about meetings. Parliament is well funded. Excuses about weak systems and heavy workloads are not valid defences. It is a basic requirement and the public has a right to know.

Advice

We wish our MPs well for the recess break and humbly remind them about the words spoken by Edmund Burke:

“Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; whose interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole”.



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