Review of Parliament 2015

Dec. 30, 2015 (4 years, 6 months ago)

The 2015 parliamentary year will be remembered as one of the most dramatic and eventful. The legislature had a bumper year of court battles, internal squabbles, brinkmanship, attempts to impeach the President, riot police batting with protesters and MPs and strike action. Despite all the sideshows and distractions, Parliament still achieved many significant things this year. With the year done and dusted, we review some of the legislature’s activities, highlights and controversies from this period.

Controversies

12 February 2015 was an extraordinary day and will remain firmly etched in the memories of many South Africans. The violent removal of the EFF, walkouts by the DA, Agang and COPE, and the jamming of cellphone signals, left many stunned and overshadowed the President’s State of the Nation Address. This incident set the tone for what turned out to be a noisy and headline-grabbing year.

The President’s private residence and questions over it were persistent throughout the year. The ad hoc committee established to probe the Minister of Police’s report on the upgrades, visited the residence and expressed shock at the cost escalations and the shoddy workmanship. The committee summoned both the Police Minister and the Public Works Minister to answer questions around the project but not the Public Protector despite a push from the opposition. In the end, the committee (with objection from the opposition) endorsed the Police Minister's report that President Zuma will not have to pay back public money spent on his Nkandla home. The report was eventually adopted by the House and differed from the Public Protector’s recommendation that the President must pay a reasonable portion for the non-security upgrades. Opposition parties reacted with outrage. The EFF declined to participate in the committee and approached the Constitutional Court on the matter.

Parliament was either the defendant or applicant in several court cases this year. Agang, the COPE and the UDM approached the courts (and eventually lost) in a bid to see the Speaker removed from her position on account of her alleged bias. Parliament’s Nkandla report, its decision to allow police to remove unruly MPs and its broadcast feed policy (Parliament won this case in the High Court but the media has appealed) have all been challenged. In addition, the Chairperson of the NCOP asked the Constitutional Court to give the final word on the powers a court has to interfere with decisions by presiding officers in Parliament. This was in response to the EFF’s victory in the Western Cape High Court that set aside a ruling that Julius Malema be removed from the National Assembly as a result of a statement he made during the State of the Nation debate in June 2014.

A number of plenary sittings degenerated into chaos as MPs lost their cool and flouted rules. Most of the worst behaviour was displayed during the President’s appearances in Parliament. The President did not escape controversy as he was criticised for mocking the opposition, not providing substantive answers and even laughing during question sessions.

The ANC and the DA got involved in a tit-for-tat battle over the disclosure of financial interests by their MPs. The ANC asked the Joint Committee on Ethics and Members Interest to investigate the leader of the opposition and 10 other DA members for not fully complying with financial disclosure requirements. In return, the DA asked that 7 ANC MPs and 2 from the EFF, who made late submissions, be investigated.

There was controversy when Parliament initially decided to close the interview process for the Inspector General of Intelligence position even though the previous process in 2009 was open to the public. The Inspector General acts as an ombudsman overseeing intelligence agencies and investigating any complaints of abuse of power. There were further concerns about the process that led to former ANC MP, Cecil Burgess, being nominated for the position. Burgess co-chaired the ad-hoc committee that passed the Protection of State Information Bill and the Intelligence Committee, where he failed to submit committee reports to Parliament for three years. This made it difficult for MPs to hold the intelligence community to account. Civil society voiced that the public needed certainty that such a watchdog role would be filled by an independent and credible individual. Ultimately, the ANC chief whip deferred the National Assembly vote in June, possibly due to a concern that the two-thirds majority required for the nomination would not be reached. At year-end, the position remains unfilled although vacant since 31 March 2015.

The storming of the parliamentary precinct by the #FeesMustFall protestors and the resulting police action was another unprecedented event that shook the legislature and brought into sharp focus the desperation, anger and disconnect of students. Lawmakers and the government had to spring into action as they held meetings, debates and considered re-organising budgets to deal with the funding crisis in higher education. Further questions were also asked about how a national key point was able to be breached.

The struggle between the parliamentary staff and management over performance bonuses threatened to cripple the institution. The industrial action caused chaos and frustration resulting in many meetings being disrupted or cancelled without notice. Programmes had to be rearranged so that urgent business could be completed before the end of the year. The parties eventually signed a settlement agreement after the month-long strike.

Highlights

In 2014, MPs complained about Parliament not debating issues of national importance. The same charge cannot be levelled again in 2015 as the Assembly debated a variety of topical issues, including police killings, the water crisis in South Africa, the relevance of symbols and statutes, the Omar al-Bashir saga, the Marikana Report, minimum wage, the economic crisis facing the country, basic and higher education matters and corruption.

The Financial Management of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act came into force in April and Parliament has started implementing its provisions. The Act amends provisions dealing with Parliament’s annual budget, appropriations and approvals. Related to this, Parliament has established a Joint Standing Committee on Financial Management of Parliament to maintain oversight over its financial management and perform any other functions specified in the Act.

Parliament has reviewed and overhauled its Rules for the National Assembly. The process was initiated in the Fourth Parliament and included several concessions and disagreements. The finalisation became increasingly urgent during the Fifth Parliament to address gaps that were exploited and exposed by political parties. Some of the changes deal with the removal of unruly MPs from the chambers, motions without notices and dress code. The rules have been agreed to in principle and still need to be endorsed by the House although the dress code guidelines have still to be drafted.

The presiding officers announced that Parliament will appoint a high-level panel to investigate the impact of the laws that the legislature has passed over the past 21 years of democracy. This is one of the legacy commitments from the Fourth Parliament.

Parliament published its Strategic Plan for the Fifth Parliament. The National Assembly will focus on strengthening oversight and accountability, enhancing public involvement, deepening engagement in international fora, and strengthening co-operative government and legislative capacity during this period.

The Police Committee’s Rule 201 Inquiry was a positive development and a strong response to criticism that Parliament does not use its teeth or the wide range of powers afforded to it through the Constitution and Rules of the National Assembly. The Select Committee on Petitions and Executive Undertakings went about its work unnoticed and made substantial progress in considering petitions from members of the public.

During the final days of the parliamentary term, the DA brought 20 last-minute amendments to the Bill that adjusts this year’s budget. The Adjustments Appropriation Bill each year provides for unforeseeable economic and financial events and other unpredictable circumstances. The official opposition argued that the crisis in Higher Education, with #FeesMustFall, meant the Bill had to be re-evaluated to see whether the extra money it was giving to departments was for unnecessary items. If so, the money should rather be spent on the shortfall in higher education. The DA identified twenty non-priority items (R184 million) to spend on university funding for the first four months of 2016. The list included cars for ministers, security guards for the Defence Force, police protection equipment, bulls for prison farms and office furniture. The party argued to make a start now rather than wait for the new financial year in April 2016 to find the money, especially if the Department of Higher Education would have to borrow from its other priorities to fund the shortfall. In the end, the DA conceded defeat but thanked committee chairperson, Paul Mashatile, for the way in which he chaired the meeting, in this first serious attempt by Parliament to use the Money Bills Amendment Procedure Act to amend the budget.

Numbers

  • Parliament held over 1200 committee meetings this year and conducted 77 oversight visits.

  • The legislature passed 25 bills and the President signed 18 bills into law.

  • The legislature processed over 4268 written questions from MPs to Ministers. By 30 November about 335 replies from Ministers were still outstanding. The executive has until 21 December to provide replies.

There is scope for more battles in 2016 as parliamentarians tackle serious financial maladministration, contentious legislation and the upcoming local elections.

See Infographic: Fifth Parliament - 2015 review in numbers

See Bills and Bill Tracker



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