BEN TUROK: How our parliament works and where fixes are needed
Now that the election is over we need to promote an understanding of how our parliament really works and how the ruling party has managed it since 1994. Some of the distortions that crept in will have to be corrected to ensure accountability and that the system works democratically.
Let us begin by tracing the experiences of a community activist in a small town somewhere in the north of SA.
Having made her mark as a community leader she is chosen by her party to be on the list for parliament and is duly elected. On arrival in Cape Town she is allocated an apartment and duly sworn in as an MP. Her chief whip allocates her to a portfolio committee and the relevant study group of her party. She then has to attend the weekly meetings of her party caucus and every session of plenary, usually three afternoons a week.
Back home, there may be a constituency office with an administrative secretary who has to deal with all inquiries and cases as they arise. The MP will be kept informed but it all becomes rather remote. Her immediate concerns are to master the intricacies of parliamentary procedures and legislation. It is a huge ask.
To relieve the build-up of pressure she may be able to return home every second weekend, but will have to spend one day on travel, leaving one day for her family. She may be able to slip in a quick meeting with her secretary and even with some individuals from her party. Otherwise contact is largely by telephone.
I spent 20 years in that environment. While there were certainly moments that I will always treasure, I am also conscious of a huge sense of frustration. Since I was parachuted into a constituency strange to me, I had no social base to build on. Furthermore local officials regarded me as an intruder with very little local status. Try as I might to take up local grievances I was not taken very seriously and made little headway.
Since leaving parliament, I am totally removed from any parliamentary activity, I don’t know the name of my MP, whether there is a constituency office, have never heard from either, and if it were not for the media, I would be unaware that I live in a parliamentary democracy apart from the current froth that goes by the name of political debate.
Surely parliament can come up with a much more rigorous system of accountability to its constituents even if they are not elected directly? Why are there not strict requirements to hold report-back public meetings, time for constituency consultations and the like?
Political party dominance
While we speak of our system being a parliamentary democracy, this does not adequately reflect the role of political parties. It is the parties which decide who goes to parliament, what you do when you get there, and how.
In the case of the ANC, Luthuli House has an absolutely dominant role in every sense. It has a deployment committee headed by the deputy president of the ANC, which appoints individuals to almost all positions. It appoints the chief whip, chairs and whips of committees, delegates to conferences, and oversees all organisational matters in parliament.
Political matters are dealt with by the secretary-general of the ANC in consultation with the chief whip. He also keeps a close eye on caucus to see that MPs do not go off at a tangent, often attending caucus with the occasional intervention by the president.
Since all appointments emanate from Luthuli House, effectively at arm's length, and on the basis of reports by individuals to officials located in Johannesburg, it leads to a sense among MPs that their best efforts may not be appreciated and the best appointments made. Can it be that having selected the best available cadres from the grassroots they cannot be trusted to elect their preferred comrades in their own committees?
Then there is the political committee, an informal body headed by the deputy president and consisting of several ministers, the chief whip and several MPs selected by Luthuli House. This committee only meets when some serious issue has arisen and is the final arbiter in disputes or controversial matters.
So we see that the ANC in parliament is under close observation by Luthuli House and whose decisions are final.
Now it is certainly understandable that the political stance of a party in parliament has to be consistent with the platform on which it was elected. And the leadership located in Luthuli House has that responsibility. When it comes to political judgements, the party leadership even has priority over the cabinet. The question is really whether that applies to all operational matters as well. In my view, the ANC overplays that hand, thereby creating a bureaucratic, instead of a political, environment.
Proceedings in parliament
We have to acknowledge that SA has huge inequalities and deep divisions among its people. It is understandable therefore that this is reflected in the contestation between political parties. This comes to the fore in plenary sessions in parliament where the parties strive to gain some ascendancy in the debates.
From the early years a tradition has developed that all MPs are expected to attend every session of plenary to support their speakers with their presence. While some sessions are vibrant and even exciting, many are extremely dull, dealing with some minor amendment to existing legislation, but MPs have to attend. This seems not to be the practice in other parliaments where attendance is often sparse. It may be that by giving plenary such priority, our parliament stimulates and provides too many opportunities for interparty conflict in front of the television cameras, heightening an already heady atmosphere.
What I am suggesting is that we give more space and recognition to parliament as a place where legislation is produced and less as the place where political parties confront each other in a country where divisions are already acute.
There is a long tradition that plenary may only be addressed by a non-member who is either the country president or a visiting head of state. Perhaps this rule should be relaxed so that the views of other distinguished South Africans could address parliament when it faces a particularly difficult issue. This would also serve to bring parliament closer to civil society and broaden its outlook beyond party concerns.
The committee system
I spent 20 years spread over three committees — finance, trade and industry, and ethics. The most rewarding was the last where we had real powers and dealt with real people.
Initially we dealt with the annual submissions of MPs on their financial interests, which was largely merely a formal process, in time we had to confront serious misconduct, including that of ministers, which required detailed legal investigations and tough exchanges. With hindsight, we were not vigorous enough as we missed the Zuma corruption which was cleverly concealed at that time.
Activities in the portfolio committees were often interesting, but also frustrating. Although parliament claims to be a law-making institution, bills are actually drawn up by ministerial staff and presented to parliament for approval. The initiative therefore always lies with the executive.
Matters become interesting when a portfolio committee has public hearings. This is when sectors affected by proposed legislation are afforded an opportunity to present expert evidence in person and in writing, which may well affect the legislation.
In practice however, it is the well-resourced organisations which make use of these opportunities, not the broad structures of civil society. Of all the concerns about having a more democratic parliament, this is the most important. Far more effort is required from the parties and from the institution as a whole to create a situation where ordinary social groups would find it conducive to give evidence to committees on particular pieces of legislation, or other matters. At present the will is simply not there. Instead there is an acceptance that considering legislation is a highly complex affair in which ordinary people have no role. Yet they are the victims of bad legislation.
Paradoxically, despite sometimes explosive relations between the ANC and the opposition, parliament only functions by virtue of substantial cross-party cooperation.
This begins in the chief whips’ forum where each party is represented and the programmes of parliament are decided, and it continues in the portfolio committees where agreements on legislative amendments are discussed and decided on. Indeed these committees are the engine room of parliament and good committees with good leaders actually achieve a great deal. They digest large volumes of documents, hold extensive hearings and work through bills line by line.
Plenary is quite different. Here individual personality matters most and only really articulate speakers get full attention.
In recent years cross-party antagonism has risen spectacularly, largely at the instigation of the EFF which revels in disrupting the house. Some of their actions are without precedence and do much damage to its capacity to do its work. If it continues there is a danger that it will undermine democracy itself.
• Turok is a former ANC MP and is now director of the Institute for African Alternatives