South African parliament. Picture: GCIS
South African parliament. Picture: GCIS

It’s a cliché that the engine room of any parliament is located in its committee work. But that is what it should be. However, in the SA parliament the committee system has effectively been captured by the ruling party, the ANC, and there appears to be little chance that any “state capture” commission will arise to expose and end the resulting travesty.

The millions spent by taxpayers on a system of accountability meant to protect them against the abuse of power is not entirely wasted, as some semblance of answerability does creep into parliament on occasion. But much of what goes on in parliamentary committees is simply an extension and elaboration of ANC policy-making, while providing “democratic” cover for its sins and shortcomings.

How this works is both fiendishly complex and staggeringly simple. It is complex because the failure of accountability is interwoven with the consciousness of ANC MPs, resulting in a morass of incomprehension and stubborn defensiveness on their part. And it is simple because it all rests on one clear idea — that the ANC IS the people and therefore cannot but represent them in every way and on every level. What the ANC brings to parliament is simply the formal manifestation of the people’s will and is therefore incontestable. Opposition parties may oppose it, but they are by definition wrong.

The higher education committee is a case in point.

Higher education is one of the biggest, most complex departments in government. It manages a budget of R108bn  and has 110 entities reporting to it. Twenty-six of them — the universities — only report indirectly. But no fewer than 84 entities report directly.

This massive budget has multiple problems within it.

Most important is the unsustainability of the student funding model. Despite the billions put on the table, there is still insufficient funding for students who cannot afford fees or living expenses. There is a massive “missing middle”.

The government knows that the levels of student funding at present cannot cope with the planned expansion of student numbers by 2030, let alone the missing middle, but is unable or unwilling to do anything about it. Its only response for now is to plan for very small increases in student numbers in both universities and technical and vocational education and training colleges (TVETs) over the next three years and hold tight.

There are thousands of other problems, and since the committee’s job is, among other things, to make sure that these problems are addressed within the budget, it needs to hear from the entities. And yet not one of these entities presented its budget and annual performance plan to the committee. Nor did it see the auditor-general’s report.

It has not seen the annual performance plans or budgets of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), an under-administration R30bn student finance organisation ; or of any of the 21 Skills Education Training Authorities (SETAs) in SA, which have little to show for their  R15bn annual funding , and often receive critical auditor-general reports; or of any of the 50 TVET colleges, many of which have struggled to conform to the Public Finance Management Act; or of the R3bn National Skills Fund, which appears to have become something of a piggy bank for random use; nor of the three quality oversight bodies, all of which are underfunded. 

How can the committee support this massive budget if it has little or no idea of what the situation is in many of its sub-budgets? How can it blandly approve of expenditure in this troubled portfolio with no clue of where the problems lie and how they are, or are not, being addressed?

These issues do not appear to trouble the ANC members of the committee. They fully support anything put in front of them. The budget was passed in the committee with barely a comment from ANC members. Worse than that, they actively resisted any discussion of subjects not directly “on message” with the ANC’s budget narrative, and are in many cases baffled by attempts to contradict this.

Making sure non-ANC views are recorded in committee reports is anathema to ANC committee members. Any opposition party which supported the budget was applauded in the committee sitting, confirming that ANC MPs regard their “oversight” role as simply to mean “I will look cursorily at the documents and support whatever the department wants — and heaven help anybody who doesn’t”.

Parliamentary committee sittings are mainly a formality. Items are rushed through simply to tick boxes. Any questioning of this is silenced or bulldozed through. The “engine room” of parliament is nothing more than a merry go round, on to which ANC members hop in order to enjoy the ride for five years, while their government does as it wishes.

• Bozzoli is an MP and the DA’s higher education shadow minister