The Sixth Parliament’s second term ended last week. A relatively short but activity-packed period it was. Its main highlights were as follows:
A large part of the work of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces takes place in committees. Committees consider policy issues, scrutinise the work and expenditure of the government, and process legislative proposals. The committee corridor was quite a hive of activity, with 187 meetings being held, a bulk of them on the National Assembly side. The three committees that met the most were the Standing Committee on Appropriations (10), Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology (10) and the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services (9). Committee meetings covered a range of topics this term but those that have garnered much attention have been: proceedings on the removal of the Public Protector; the filling of the post of Deputy Public Protector as the tenure of the incumbent comes to an end early December; and the release of crime statistics by the Minister of Police. Amid a slew of court findings against the Public Protector, the calls for the process to be expedited increased from the DA and civil society organisations. Parliament's Rules Committee is thus expected to devise a process for her removal.
Plenary days and Executive oversight
Members of the Executive, including the President and the Deputy President, availed themselves to answer Oral Questions in both the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces. Throughout the 11 days slated for plenary sessions, the President appeared twice; for a Questions to the President session at the start of the term as well as to address a Special Joint Sitting on gender-based violence that was convened in terms of Section 84 of the Constitution towards the end of the term. The call for an urgent debate was made following the rape and murder of women including UCT and UWC students Uyinene Mrwetyana and Jesse Hess, which put the scourge of gender-based violence on the spotlight. The Women’s Parliament also sat under the theme “Towards strengthening the National Gender Machinery as a response to addressing Gender-Based Violence in South Africa”.
Interesting and topical debates on issues of urgent national importance occurred in the National Assembly this term, foremost being: the two debates on the unemployment crisis in South Africa as well as the incidents of violence and criminality in the country including that affecting foreign nationals. The two debates were sponsored by the DA (Mr M Maimane) and the IFP (Mr M Hlengwa) respectively. Other subjects of discussion worth noting were the debates on: Government’s proposal to introduce a regime of prescribed assets in South Africa, which threatens the pension savings of millions of South Africans (Mr C Hill-Lewis) and the debate on building state capacity through insourcing of government and all state-owned companies (Mr J Malema). Various government clusters such as the peace and security as well as social services also appeared for oral question sessions during the term.
As Leader of Government Business, the Deputy President was expected to appear before both Houses but only made an appearance once before the National Council of Provinces.
On the law-making front, legislation has been slow in terms of introduction but the term was dominated by processing of the Special Appropriation Bill by economic cluster committees. The Bill seeks to provide additional financial support to Eskom for the current and next financial year. Public hearings and stakeholder engagement meetings topped the Standing Committee on Appropriations’ agenda during the period under review.
Further, the National Health Insurance Bill was introduced to Parliament and is currently under consideration by the National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on Health. Process-wise, the Bill will have to go through the stipulated parliamentary processes, which will include a public participation period, which might inform some amendments to the Bill, before it is put before the National Assembly for a vote. If the National Assembly passes it, it will be referred to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), for a similar process and concurrence. If the NCOP passes it, it will then be referred to the President who must give assent and sign it into law. On the NA side, public hearings on the Bill are set to begin in October, with the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Health indicating recently that the public engagement process will also take place on weekends to accommodate people who are unavailable during the week. As per the committee programme, the hearings will start in Mpumalanga from October 25 to 28, and will then move to the Northern Cape from November 1 to 4.
Questions for Written Reply
In addition to oral questions, MPs can ask government ministers written questions. These are often used to obtain detailed information about policies and statistics on the activities of government departments. During the period under review, MPs from both Houses submitted a total of 584 questions, of this sum total, 297 were endorsed as unanswered in accordance with National Assembly Rule (146)3 which stipulates that if a written reply has not been received within 10 working days or within the period of an extension approved by the Speaker, the Question Paper must be endorsed to the effect that the question has not been replied to.
Section 56 (d) and 69 (d) of the Constitution provides for the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces to receive petitions from any interested persons or institutions. A petition is a formal request to Parliament for intervention in a matter. It can take the form of either a request for assistance with a specific issue or for the redress of a grievance. During the period under review, four petitions were submitted to Parliament by Ekurhuleni and Alberton residents calling on the National Assembly to investigate service delivery issues as affecting the said communities. The petitions were subsequently referred to National Assembly committees for consideration and report.