TANYA COHEN: New parliament must raise the bar on doing the job of making law
We expect our MPs to rise above party positions and be accountable to the people, who have given legislators a five-year mandate
The sixth parliament needs to distinguish itself from its recent predecessors, which passed a proliferation of laws without appropriate oversight and scrutiny. The ultimate law-making institution appeared to be caught in party factionalism and rendered itself unable to take decisions and exercise oversight.
This took place while the institutions of state were undermined by state capture as parliament sat by, and court after court issued precedent-setting judgments. We require a parliament that serves consistently with distinction, plays an effective oversight role and ensures that legislation is fit for purpose and enables employment, investment and inclusive growth.
Section 42(3) of the constitution states: “[The] National Assembly is elected to represent the people and ensure government by the people under the constitution. It does this by choosing the president, by providing a national forum for public consideration of issues, by passing legislation and by scrutinising and overseeing executive action.”
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A prime example of parliament performing its prescribed role was during the inquiry into state-owned enterprises (SOEs) conducted in the portfolio committee on public enterprises in 2017/2018 under the leadership of acting chair Zukiswa Rantho. Parliamentarians put aside party sensitivities and scrutinised what it was that had enabled state capture to take root in SOEs.
As Denel, Transnet and Eskom were put under the spotlight, individuals including Ben Ngubane, Ben Martins, Zola Tsotsi, Matshela Koko, Brian Molefe and scores of others were summoned before parliament to account. As Rantho pointed out at the conclusion of the inquiry: “It restored the faith of people in our constitutional democracy.” The inquiry prompted the appointment of a new Eskom board and executive, and the establishment of the Zondo inquiry into state capture.
These developments constituted a visible demonstration to South Africans of the role parliament is expected to play in holding to account those who exercise stewardship over public resources and private sector actors.
Those were, indeed, the worst of times; but also, in some respects, the best of times as the judiciary laid out in no uncertain terms what was expected of the legislature
Contrast this with the deeply flawed manner in which parliament dealt with the Nkandla report. Former public protector Thuli Madonsela found in her “Secure in Comfort” report that former president Jacob Zuma had benefitted irregularly from nonsecurity upgrades to his private home at Nkandla, recommending in her remedial action that Zuma pay back a reasonable portion of the money. Parliament’s response was to vilify both the office of the public protector and Madonsela herself, and pay lip service to the concerns raised in the report. An ad hoc, multiparty committee was established that conducted a sham process and, in the face of damning evidence to the contrary, concluded that there was no wrongdoing and no money should be paid back. On application by the EFF, UDM and Cope the Constitutional Court found that parliament had failed to hold the president to account.
The courts delivered a set of ground-breaking judgments during the term of the fifth parliament as a consequence of its poor or wrong decisions. These included the affirmation of the powers vested in the office of the public protector; the speaker’s powers to determine whether to hold a no-confidence vote by secret ballot; reinforcing MPs’ privileges; banning the presence of police in the chamber; and the Constitutional Court finding that a sitting president had violated his oath of office.
Those were, indeed, the worst of times; but also, in some respects, the best of times as the judiciary laid out in no uncertain terms what was expected of the legislature.
I too have had mixed experiences when I appeared before parliament representing organised business. The first time was as a business representative on the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) governing body. As I stepped onto the tiled floors and sat in the heavy leather and wooden benches I felt a sense of awe at the promise of playing a small part in contributing to the vision of the new democratic SA. It was the promise and power of parliament to unravel the apartheid and racist past and restore dignity to all South Africans while also working towards equality, that were, and remain, so compelling.
Over time, however, that idealism was sometimes challenged. Appearing as part of the CCMA governing body before the portfolio committee of labour, there were times that the committee showed scant regard for the prudent use of public resources and people’s time in its conduct. The committee chair insisted that members of the entire governing body and senior management of the CCMA attend for the full day of presentations, despite the fact that only one person was allowed to speak. Moreover, only a handful of MPs were present.
At other times, the experience was markedly different. When I appeared as CEO of Business Unity SA (Busa) more recently as part of the national minimum wage deliberations, the astute acting chair kept a tight rein on proceedings and treated all stakeholders with dignity and respect. This experience demonstrated the preparedness of many MPs to act with diligence and rationality, and to hear all voices. It also showed a degree of respect for the social partner agreements reached at Nedlac, without abdicating the role of parliament.
Petty point scoring
Similarly, when I appeared before the ad hoc committee on expropriation without compensation, we were given a fair opportunity to present the business case and answer questions, even if there was no agreement with our input. It was, therefore, disappointing that the process appeared to have a flawed end, with poor research and an outcome that seemed to be predetermined along party lines and which called into question the credibility of the process.
As we move into the sixth parliament, we should emphasise that we expect accountability, integrity, diligence and dignity from our public representatives. We must guard against parliament being turned into a site of petty point scoring, factionalism and divisive politics. We expect our MPs to rise above party positions and be accountable to the people, who have given legislators a five-year mandate. They must act with a deep sense of what is good in the long run for South Africans in our quest for social prosperity and justice. This requires that our MPs conduct themselves with integrity, commit to uphold the constitution, speak out and vote with their conscience in the interests of the country.
We expect MPs to execute their responsibilities with diligence and apply their minds to the issues before them. We expect them to attend meetings, read the submissions and engage with them, call for research or further information where necessary, and ensure decisions are sound and justifiable. This also means MPs must consider the evidence of their decisions, understand the impact and engage meaningfully to produce the most appropriate legislation to achieve desired objectives, having properly considered the unintended consequences. We expect all who appear before parliament to be treated with dignity and respect. People should have the right to express themselves, be listened to, be engaged with, and be responded to when they enter the halls of the legislature.
There are concerns whether all those who will be sworn in this week will have the fortitude to discharge their responsibilities with the accountability, integrity, diligence and dignity this esteemed institution and our country deserve. It will take courage and the willingness to act in the interests of all South Africans if we are to achieve the vision of the new dawn.
This is a seminal moment to demonstrate in the composition and actions of those entering parliament that we have learnt from the experiences of previous parliaments and that public representatives will conduct themselves within the ethos of the constitution.