MPs in the National Assembly. Picture: ELMOND JIYANE
MPs in the National Assembly. Picture: ELMOND JIYANE

Now that the buzz generated by the president’s state of the nation address is over we can reflect on how parliament is supposed to work to do the job set out in the constitution. As we shall see, parliament is actually a complex institution, much more so than the conventional view that it is a place where politicians squabble about bits of legislation and engage in nasty personal attacks. In the end, we are all affected by decisions taken in parliament, so we had better keep an eye on what goes on there.

First, let me concede that a faction in Luthuli House tried to capture parliament recently by prematurely nominating some questionable individuals as chairs of portfolio committees. To some extent, they were thwarted by other ANC people, though they still got certain positions. This incident nevertheless revealed how the ANC goes about the business of deployment.

Let’s go back to the earlier stages. ANC branches nominate individuals for the National Assembly, National Council of Provinces and provincial councils. These are processed through various stages and finalised by the national list committee, which has some discretion to ensure equal male and female representation and that the final lists are fair. Ultimately, the lists go to officials in parliament and members are sworn in. The secretary-general of the ANC plays a central role in all of this, including decisions on who should be the speaker and deputy speaker, as well as house chair and chief whip of both houses in parliament. As it happens, Thandi Modise, Lechesa Tsenoli and Cedrik Frolik are all seasoned parliamentarians who will ensure stability on procedural matters.

The main focus remains on how the political parties relate to each other and how legislation is processed.

There is some uncertainty about the administration, since the secretary of parliament has been on suspension for a long time and the speaker’s office seems unable to resolve matters. But there are ample officials who will continue to manage the order paper and business of the house, allocate meeting rooms and offices, and all the other practical matters that need attention.

However, the main focus remains on how the political parties relate to each other and how legislation is processed. While parliament gives the impression that there is a permanent state of low-intensity warfare, it is nevertheless true that it cannot function without a degree of co-operation between parties and individual MPs. This starts with the chief whips’ forum, consisting of the chief whips of all parties who meet frequently and decide on topics for debates in plenary, time allocations and the like. While the ANC clearly seeks to establish a leading role here, it remains dependent on agreement from other parties to manage the affairs of the house.

In the portfolio committees, which are multiparty, the ANC will ensure that its nominees occupy the chair, but here too the chair will succeed only if there is a degree of co-operation from opposition members. Our experience is that a chair who tries to ram decisions through with the aid of the ANC majority on the committee may find that opposition members absent themselves, leaving the committee without a quorum. In this way, a chair may be left stranded. In practice, chairs try to be fair to all committee members, hear all views and try to achieve a reasonable consensus. In the process, good relations build up, and solid work can be done.

Over the years there has been some controversy about how policy is generated. Parliament will have some substantial debates on major issues and portfolio committees have some room for deciding policy. But legislation is initiated by cabinet and introduced in parliament by ministers, first in portfolio committees and then in plenary. At the initial stages the committee will go through the bill line by line and often call public hearings, when interested parties such as business associations and NGOs can come and present evidence. Department officials will be present and respond, and ultimately table all the proposed amendments together with the responses. By this time the whole bill will have gone through a thorough analysis process and incorporate the views of the committee. So a good committee can influence legislation substantially.

Unfortunately, these good relations are not sustained once the same members debate issues in the house in plenary, where posturing before television cameras is the rule. Also, in plenary ministers are given primacy to set the tone in a debate and members are expected to toe the line. The chief whip is always present and will call to order a member who deviates too much.

Members are also primed politically in their respective caucuses, which take place every Thursday morning. In the case of the ANC, some 300 MPs from the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces meet weekly under a chair appointed by Luthuli House.

In the first parliament in 1994, ANC MPs elected all the chairs and whips, but this was changed under Mbeki and deployment has become universal. This obviously makes it much easier for a faction to try to take control. It also undermines the possibility of members themselves identifying capable leaders of  committees in a bottom-up process. Caucus is meant to be the hot house of party positions on critical issues. But it is also the arena for laying down a line from which there can be no deviation, especially when the president himself, or the secretary-general of the ANC, decides to address it. It takes a bold MP to stand up and take an opposing view, although it does happen.

The weakness of our parliamentary system lies in the weak relationship between MPs with their constituents. Although every member is allocated to a constituency and has an office and an administrator to attend to citizens’ problems, it is all rather remote. In 20 years, I had three constituencies – Muizenberg, Paarl and Mowbray. I was able to attend the office only on Mondays, and relied on my administrator to attend to things the rest of the time. So a good MP may become quite specialised in a particular area, but cannot claim to represent the views and aspirations of his constituents.

• Turok is a former ANC MP, now director of the Institute for African Alternatives and editor of New Agenda journal.