By Judith February
President Jacob Zuma comes to Parliament to answer oral questions again on Thursday. Last week’s budget vote debates left much to be desired as MPs seemed more intent on name-calling than debating the challenges facing SA.
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete recently pronounced that the institution was a "vibrant" space for debate. Her own positions as speaker and chair of the ruling party have done more to diminish debate in the House of Assembly than anything else this year.
Having said this, the plenary session has always been a bit of a stage for politicians. It is the committees that have been the engine rooms of Parliament, which has changed dramatically since the halcyon days of 1994, when everything seemed possible and the old culture made way for a refreshingly new openness.
Yet, the second Parliament became equally tainted by the investigation into the arms deal in 2000. Executive interference saw overweening African National Congress (ANC) MPs bend over backwards to protect the executive. Nothing can quite match the fawning and crudeness of intent of current ANC MPs but the arms deal investigation created a precedent of a compliant Parliament that remains with us.
And the more worrying signs are there to be read. Recently, when the Central Energy Fund and PetroSA were briefing the portfolio committee on energy, journalists were initially barred from the meeting. After much toing and froing, they were allowed access for the final hour.
The Right2Know Campaign, Amabhungane, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution and the Institute for Security Studies have been involved in a battle for openness in relation to the appointment of the inspector-general of intelligence. Chairwoman of the joint standing committee on intelligence Connie September initially seemed none too keen to conduct proceedings in the open, using that tired excuse of national security. Of course, the committee has "special rules" making its activities secret by default. Mostly closed meetings have been the order of the day.
Its recent meetings have been open, though defensively so. Perhaps that is because the committee’s decision is a fait accompli and party loyalist Cecil Burgess already has the position in the bag. Certainly, September seemed eager to shut down any discussion of Burgess’s suitability.
Too often lately, we have seen national security being used as a weak justification for a lack of openness in parliamentary committees. Section 59 of the Constitution provides for public access to, and involvement in, the National Assembly. Parliament has a responsibility to be consistent about openness to maximise proper public participation.
In 2009, the Independent Panel on the Assessment of Parliament raised questions and made recommendations on Parliament’s role as a site for public participation that remain directly relevant years later. In addition, the panel made several recommendations on Parliament’s oversight role and how it could be strengthened. The panel also found there was a need for Parliament to explore reasons for its poor record in taking steps to improve the quality and substance of debate. Despite these and many other findings and recommendations, the panel’s report has gathered dust. Ironically, it was Mbete, who was then speaker, who set up the panel.
The "Prague Spring" we saw after Polokwane in 2009, with its new bent towards openness, has turned into a winter of discontent for Parliament. If Parliament is to turn around the negative public perceptions of its workings, it will need to show a greater commitment to transparency and the original idea of a "people’s Parliament". It would also do well to revisit the panel’s recommendations, even if that means taking some tough decisions. That might mean starting in the speaker’s office, where the tone for deliberation is set, after all.
This article was first published in Business Day, 18 June 2015.
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