Putting the People In People’s Parliament
With South Africa emerging from a decade of state capture, all eyes are on the sixth democratic Parliament, as the Zondo Commission turns its attention on National and Provincial legislatures and their role in failing to tackle systemic corruption.
Civil society organisations monitoring Parliament’s committee system formed a coalition in 2016 called Parliament Watch [#ParlyWatch], to share collective experiences during the fifth democratic Parliament.
According to a report published by the Dullah Omar Institute “Parly Watch has struggled to get the information we need, on time, to ensure that activists and members of partner organisations can be present in committees when these important discussions about issues that affect the majority of the public take place.”
At the recent National Civil Society Organisations Dialogue, held at Community House, Cape Town on the 25 June 2019, representatives from a broad spectrum of organisations, activists and experts in accountability gathered to set civil society’s agenda for the sixth Parliament.
Key concerns emerging from participants included the lack of accountability and consequences management for ministers and departments found wanting in terms of performance and corruption; a lack of transparency with regards deployment of senior officials and public representatives, and most importantly a lack of meaningful public participation. The overarching impression of participants is that there is a fundamental disconnect between Parliament and the people. Examples cited include that the public receive information about committee meetings only two days before the actual meeting; sometimes information on meetings for the next day is only made available on the afternoon of the day before. Without good information, on time, Parly Watch and members of the public cannot monitor or participate in these processes.
As new revelations at the Zondo Commission begin to unravel the complicity of Members of Parliament and Parliamentary Committee Chairs in corruption through lack of oversight, and in some cases even as alleged direct beneficiaries of money from private entities such as Bosasa, organised civil society has much work to do to demand accountability from Parliament itself. Whilst much of the evidence emerging from the Zondo and other commissions is damning, the evidence is still untested in courts of law.
The connecting of the dots is inevitable and the role of organised civil society is critical to monitoring accountability of the Sixth Democratic Parliament in lieu of the Zondo Commission’s announcement of a special unit to zoom in on the Fifth Democratic Parliament’s alleged transgressions.
Some of the key issues which are likely to form part of the CSO strategy for Parliament accountability are insisting that portfolio committee chairpersons ensures committee meetings are open to the public and accessible. Openness and transparency of the work of Parliament is a key non-negotiable constitutional imperative.
A major concern is the effectiveness of Members of Parliament training and their depth of understanding with the portfolio and select committees they serve. The independence of MPs as public representatives was stressed as well as the importance of public and community accessibility to the legislative and oversight work of the legislatures.
The CSOs have begun to unravel the mystery of how Parliament as an institution functions, and recently have been considering Parliament’s own fifth democratic Parliament legacy report which reflects much unfinished business, in particular how the Administration of Parliament has been impacted with many management and staff casualties through systemic abuse of power.
The civil society sector needs to develop a deeper understanding how Parliament works
institutionally and the role of the Joint Standing Committee on Financial Management of Parliament in holding the Secretary to Parliament and the Executive Authority to account.
Governed by the Financial Management of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act of 2014, are the Presiding Officers (Speaker of the National Assembly and Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces) for the Executive Authority. The secretary to Parliament is the head of the administration. The incumbent secretary to Parliament, Gengezi Mgidlana has been on suspension since July 2017. It has been widely reported that Mgidlana is facing damning charges of gross maladministration. Western Cape High Court documents available in the public domain outline Parliament’s own Audit Committee findings against Mgidlana for which he is facing a disciplinary process.
The new Speaker of the National Assembly, Thandi Modise, announced in her recent budget vote speech that the long outstanding matter concerning the secretary to Parliament will be resolved by August 2019.
The abuse of power and toxic work environment within the administration has as its roots a constitutional lacuna identified by former managers of Parliament who wrote an open letter of support after the protest suicide of Lennox Garane on 14 September 2018. In an incident that shocked the nation and galvanised civil society organisations to take note of the pattern of victimisation and abuse within the Administration, it became clear, by the Public Service Commission’s own admission, that it has no jurisdiction over Parliament’s professional officials employed to keep the institution operating smoothly. The question, asked by legal experts and advocates for accountability, is who holds Parliament’s Executive Authority accountable when officials have no recourse in instances of abuse of power or maladministration by Members of Parliament and the accounting authority, the Secretary to Parliament.
There is currently no performance management system for MPs and civil society is grappling with how it can intervene and actively discuss what its role is in getting Parliament to function better. The South African Parliamentary system is not an isolated case in these accountability weaknesses. It is a pervasive practice based on the current party system that legislatures defer or are subservient to party political interests.
The Zondo Commission, in announcing the establishment of a unit designed to look at the role of the fifth democratic Parliament in the era of state capture, has been identified as an opportunity where civil society organisations can make an impact through submissions.
Now that civil society organisations are starting to organise, share experiences and form large coalitions around issues of accountability, there is some hope that the collective effort will yield greater results.
One of the demands emerging from the strategic session by the civil society collective is to push for clearer criteria on board appointments and dismissals, advocate for legislative reforms and insist on stricter provisions on ownership control of SOEs. The public needs a bigger say in how the national budget priorities are managed. Public interest should be central focus as the citizens of South Africa are the actual shareholders of national assets, including SOEs.
What remains to be seen is whether organized civil society will be successful in their advocacy push to put the People back into the People’s Parliament.