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It is gratifying to read that the proposals I made in my written and oral submissions to the Zondo state capture commission have been included as the commission’s own proposals in its final report.
Major charges are required in parliament. A supposedly simple thing such as the minutes of meetings in parliament remain meaningless. When preparing for my submission to the commission, the official minutes of parliament were treated as irrelevant by myself and representatives of the Zondo Commission. We had to turn to an independent and privately funded information service, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) to provide accurate and detailed minutes of meetings. This is just one example of how, despite the extensive resources available to parliament, its output remains sub-par.
The DA has released a 10-point plan on how to make parliament work properly. This echoes the proposals I made to commission chair Raymond Zondo. The committee system in parliament is broken, with committee members of the ANC abusing their majority. As a result, when I was shadow transport minister my numerous attempts to initiate a commission of inquiry into the Passenger Rail Agency SA was blocked by the ANC over and over again.
Because of the disproportionate strength of the ANC in parliament, it holds the chair of all portfolio committees other than the standing committee on public accounts. A more transparent and open system would be one where political parties would be entitled proportionately to serve as portfolio and select committee chairs. This is a common feature in many parliamentary systems throughout the world.
This is particularly important when ensuring there is a definitive separation of powers in the legislature (in this case both houses of parliament; the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces) to keep a check on the executive. In addition, in cases where a country has an overly dominant political party such as in SA, the required in-depth oversight cannot be expected.
Even in countries with first-past-the-post electoral systems patronage, political connections and networks, and political ambitions by party members, are all reasons preventing MPs from subjecting their colleagues in the executive to scrutiny. Only in cases where the executive and the majority of the legislature are not from the same party is a robust examination of a president and cabinet ministers more likely. The effectiveness of a legislature is dependent on strong committees that hold the executive to account without fear or favour.
Other important parliamentary functions such as oversight work and public participation are often “stage managed” to ensure government and the executive are reflected in the best possible light while ignoring, and even hiding, the negatives.
Submitting questions to ministers for written or oral reply is one of the ways in which MP hold government to account. However, it has become the norm that replies by ministers to the questions that are posed are incomplete and lacking in detail and depth. This means ministers follow the rules of parliament and technically reply to questions, but all too often provide “lukewarm” or “sweetheart” replies.
We often hear from the speaker and presiding officers that the fact that “we do not like the answers” is irrelevant as the ministers are answering the question. According to the ANC, we should be satisfied that the minister answers our questions in the first place, implying that the reply is almost inconsequential. As a result, my colleagues and I are engaged in a constant cat and mouse game trying to obtain replies to questions while ministers work hard to evade them.
There should be penalties for ministers who miss the required deadline for the submission of replies as well as the quality of replies provided by them. Presently, ministers treat questions, statements and motions in the house as irritants and simply do not take these important tools of accountability and transparency in the serious and constitutional light they demand.
The DA will continue to work hard to reform parliament, which for the length of the ANC tenure has progressively become weaker. While opposition parties send their brightest and best to parliament, the ANC uses parliament as a dumping-ground for their worst and least impressive.
As we prepare for a change of government in 2024, these changes have to be made now so that they are ready for implementation.
Manny de Freitas, MPChair of the DA Johannesburg region
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.