The second term of Parliament officially ended on 25 June and MPs are on recess until 16 August 2021.
The Sixth Parliament turned two during the term, on 22 May.
The main highlights of the term included: processing of the 2021/22 Budget; public hearings on various pieces of legislation; important committee hearings and debates to mention a few.
A sizable chunk of the term was spent processing the 2021/22 Budget as well as the three Bills introduced on Budget Day, namely: Division of Revenue Bill, Appropriation Bill and the Special Appropriation Bill, which were passed just before MPs left for their constituency break. This concluded Parliament’s processing of the 2021 Budget. Parliament’s responsibility concerning the Budget is an ongoing, rolling process throughout the financial year.
The Budget Vote debates allowed for Parliament, and the public, to be updated about what departments are doing, how they are performing and exactly how public money is being used in a forum larger than a Committee meeting. By and large, the speeches followed a familiar pattern – a few notable announcements, a focus on implementing government’s economic reconstruction and recovery plan, a recognition of the fiscal constraints and budget cuts and a recognition that COVID-19 has placed added pressure on government services.
Committees and ministerial attendance
There were 331 meetings during this period, the bulk of them on the National Assembly side.
During a 22 June joint meeting of the Standing Committees on Public Accounts and the Auditor-General, on MFMA audit outcomes & COVID-19 municipal expenditure, AG Tsakani Maluleke painted a bleak picture of the state of the country’s municipal finances, highlighting to MPs how municipalities had racked up R26 billion in irregular expenditure. Nobody really knows what happened to about R5.5 billion in funds that flowed through 22 of South Africa's worst-run municipalities in a year, according to AG Maluleke. It was made apparent that the state of municipalities is dire, four months before the 2021 local government elections scheduled for late October.
Parliament considered three vacancies in this period: Critical Infrastructure Council, SA Human Rights Council (SAHRC) and the National Youth Development Agency. Only the SAHRC appointments were finalized during the term.
On ministerial attendance, Ministers and their deputies typically attend committee meetings for crucial events such as the introduction of legislation as well as the tabling of annual performance plans and annual reports. Beyond this, they are invited to address major topical issues that are in the public domain. The mean (average) attendance for both Ministers and their deputies was three times this term, an uptick from two of the previous term.
Whether it's in the main chambers or the committee corridor, the ramifications of COVID-19 are seldom far away. During the term, there were a number of coronavirus-related committee hearings scheduled too. Members were kept apprised about the state of preparedness for the third wave, the validity of COVID-related data, vaccine acquisition and rollout, special audits on COVID-19 expenditure and more. PMG has consolidated reports on the COVID-19 related meetings here.
One of the highlights was the Portfolio Committee on Health’s scrutiny of the Digital Vibes contract. The Standing Committee on Public Accounts also met for a follow-up update with the Special Investigating Unit on investigations into COVID-19 personal protective equipment procurement by state institutions.
During an NCOP sitting on 15 June, with MPs bemoaning the delays in government’s vaccine rollout efforts; and the DA in particular calling for a special parliamentary probe into the handling of the Covid-19 vaccine programme, Deputy President Mabuza, as the chairperson of the inter-ministerial committee on vaccines, insisted that jabs were rolling out as fast as possible. It remains to be seen if the DA’s request to Speaker Thandi Modise for a COVID-19 vaccination ad hoc committee inquiry is successful.
Written and Oral Questions
Written questions form part of a number of useful oversight mechanisms available to MPs to hold members of the Executive to account. A total of 981 questions were sent to the Executive by Members this term. Of the tally, 752 were posed by National Assembly MPs and 439 replies were received.
As per the norm, Oral Questions and Answer sessions were held in both chambers during the term. The President, Deputy President and several ministerial clusters made appearances.
On the legislative front, a total of 42 Bills are under consideration by parliamentary committees. Notable was the passing of the GBV Bills by the National Assembly. Parties were unanimous in backing the Bills on 2 June but also warned that there was no easy fix for the deep-rooted problem of the gender-based violence scourge.
The National Health Insurance Bill, introduced to Parliament in August 2019, is currently under consideration by the Portfolio Committee on Health. The committee held oral hearings on the Bill during the course of the term [NHI: Tracking the bill through Parliament].
The Portfolio Committee on Social Development kick-started hearings on the Children’s Amendment Bill mid-May, and visited Limpopo and Mpumalanga before a decision to postpone the hearings until further notice was taken mid-June after the country moved to lockdown level 3.
The Portfolio Committee on Public Works and Infrastructure also crisscrossed the country to gather views from communities on the Expropriation Bill. The Committee visited four provinces: Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and the Western Cape, and held at least 15 public engagements between 9 May and 11 June [Tracking the Expropriation Bill in Parliament].
The Ad Hoc Committee to Initiate and Introduce Legislation Amending Section 25 of the Constitution was granted an extension to the end of August 2021 to complete its work, from the initial deadline of 31 May. [Section 25 Review Process].
25th Anniversary of the Constitution
Another notable highlight was the 28 May debate on the 25th anniversary of the Constitution, which saw MPs reflecting on the historic document. The just over two-hour debate brought both Houses in a joint sitting wherein MPs outlined successes, challenges and limitations of the supreme law, and took stock of the journey travelled thus far.
Parliament’s multiparty delegation of five members took part in the fourth ordinary session of the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) towards the end of May. However, the session of this parliamentary body had to be suspended after five days of plenary sittings following disagreements and disruptions among members. The disagreements and ugly scenes transpired during proceedings of the plenary on 31 May and 1 June as the parliament was looking to elect the president and vice-presidents of its bureau. Western and southern Africa regions were pulling from different sides over whether the presidency should move around the continent's different blocs on a rotational basis. The subsequent chaos and violence led to the session being abandoned, leaving the parliamentary body leaderless until it meets again in October.
Public Protector Matter
All political parties represented in Parliament will have a vote on whether the Public Protector, Adv Busisiwe Mkhwebane, is fit for office- this after Speaker Modise expanded the composition of the Section 194 Enquiry Committee to 36 members from all 14 parties, with the ANC having majority representation with 19 members, four from the DA, two from the EFF and one each representing the rest of the parties. All 36 members will be allowed to vote in committee processes. The previous composition of the committee, announced in April, had 26 members, with only 11 of them with voting rights. Of those 11, only two were going to vote on behalf of the 11 smaller parties. UDM leader Bantu Holomisa then objected to this and called for “a weighted voting system” to promote fairness and democracy.
The Section 194 enquiry is yet to get underway.
Register of Members’ Interests
At the end of May, the Joint Committee on Ethics and Members’ Interests released the Register of Members’ Interests for 2019 as per the Code of Ethical Conduct and Disclosure of Members’ Interests for National Assembly and Permanent Council Members. The Committee said finalisation of the 800-page register was delayed due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19, which also affected the declarations for 2020.
The term ahead
As with previous cycles, the 2021 local government elections are expected to have an impact on the parliamentary calendar.
Former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke is currently leading a process to review whether the current conditions are conducive or not to the holding of free and fair elections later this year. The Inquiry plans to hand-in its final report to the Electoral Commission by 21 July 2021, before the date of the proclamation of the local government elections by the Minister.
While there have been calls for the legislature to return to business in the Cape Town precinct, the third wave is likely to extend the practice of virtual meetings and hearings.
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