Round the clock: A woman receives an injection during an antenatal check-up at the Alexandra Clinic in Johannesburg. The EFF wants SA’s clinics to be open 24 hours a day. Picture: LAUREN MULLIGAN
Round the clock: A woman receives an injection during an antenatal check-up at the Alexandra Clinic in Johannesburg. The EFF wants SA’s clinics to be open 24 hours a day. Picture: LAUREN MULLIGAN

With the 2019 elections rapidly approaching, SA’s legislators are increasingly using their right to introduce new legislation in parliament as a way to connect with prospective voters.

Traditionally, most legislation has been introduced by the executive, but in 2018 a flurry of private members’ bills have been tabled in parliament. Seven bills are being processed, and at least two more are in the pipeline.

In 2017, just three private members’ bills were tabled in parliament and in 2016 only one was scrutinised by MPs, according to figures on the Parliamentary Monitoring Group’s website.

This year’s crop covers a wide terrain, ranging from a DA bill seeking to make it easier for South Africans to vote abroad, to a bill from the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) that aims to ban cosmetic testing on animals.

"As you get closer to elections, politicians want to drive an electoral agenda that speaks to their constituency" says DA chief whip John Steenhuisen.

A prime example is ACDP MP Cheryllyn Dudley’s private members bill on abortion, which was rejected by parliament last week.

Critics saw the bill as an attempt to tighten the conditions under which women could terminate unwanted pregnancies, as it proposed introducing mandatory counselling with ultrasound images of the foetus for all women seeking abortions.

The bill received wide media coverage and raised the profile of an issue close to ACDP voters’ hearts.

"It achieved what I hoped it would: it put forward valid arguments for improving the legislation without taking away people’s rights to choose," says Dudley.

"This is one of the subjects no-one wants to debate [but] the media responded, discussions were held, and we started to learn as a country how to disagree more respectfully," she says.

While Dudley’s abortion bill was never going to be accepted as it flies in the face of ANC policy, the governing party has a much bigger problem on its hands when it comes to dealing with legislation introduced by the EFF, which is using private members’ bills to put pressure on the ANC to deliver on policy positions taken at its conference in June 2017, such as nationalising the Reserve Bank.

"Private members’ bills have not been maximally utilised by opposition parties since the Constitutional Court ruled on their permissibility," says EFF chief whip Floyd Shivambu.

"This is due to the fact that many opposition parties do not have substantial policy alternatives," he says.

"The EFF is tabling the private members’ bills to give substantial policy and legislative alternatives.

"And as seen with the Banks Amendment Bill, our submissions are very difficult to counter with sensible arguments," he says.

The Banks Amendment Bill proposes that the government be allowed to own banks. The EFF is also proposing that government clinics stay open round the clock, a policy it has successfully driven through in Johannesburg.

In 2012 the Constitutional Court declared as unconstitutional parliamentary rules that had required an MP to obtain permission before introducing a bill, opening the way for individuals to do so off their own bat.

Since then only one private member’s bill — Dudley’s Labour Laws Amendment Bill introducing paternity leave — has been passed by parliament.

All the others have either been rejected or withdrawn.

"Dudley’s bill represented an idea whose time had come," says Steenhuisen. "It thus had broad political support."

The fact that so few private members’ bills have succeeded might suggest they are an exercise in futility, but observers such as Abdul Waheed Patel, MD of political lobby group Ethicore, say they have wider impact.

"Private members’ bills may run their course, but they catalyse broader reform," he says. MPs are increasingly using private members’ bills to draw attention to gaps in legislation.

They can use this legislative tool to put pressure on the executive to incorporate important issues and speed up the drafting of vital laws, he says.

For example, the late IFP MP Mario Ambrosini’s Credit Amendment Bill, which was published in 2012, drove the department of trade & industry to table legislation to tighten control on reckless lending and improve the process of debt review and counselling.

The DA’s Mike Waters proposed a series of changes to the Child Protection Act in a private member’s bill in 2012, including a register of sex offenders. His bill was rejected by parliament, but an almost identical bill was tabled by the social development ministry a few weeks later, says Steenhuisen.

While political parties may well use private members’ bills to show they are making good on their electoral promises, frivolous matters will not stand up to parliamentary scrutiny, says Patel.

"MPs must show the bill fulfils a need, and parliament’s rules protect the system from abuse," he says.