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

The lowest-paid member of SA’s parliament earns the princely sum of R1.13m a year. That person also enjoys free housing in Cape Town, 88 journeys a year to the city, free travel to and from airports, relocation allowances, free travel for dependants, a cellphone, tablet and laptop, and free transport from their home to parliament.

The highest-paid MPs are the speaker of the National Assembly and the chair of the National Council of Provinces. They each earn R2.82m a year.

MPs are representatives of the people. Their job is to act for you, the citizen, and to keep the executive honest, responsible and focused. Have your MPs been earning their keep?

Until last Thursday, when a National Assembly committee meeting was hacked with porn images and the racial abuse of speaker Thandi Modise, South Africans would have been forgiven for thinking their MPs had fled the country.

The only sound coming from parliament had been the thud of our MPs rubber-stamping of the actions of the executive and chanting “yes sir, of course sir” as a parade of ministers swanned through virtual committee meetings, wagging their fingers and telling MPs that talk of economic disaster was a “thumb suck”.

ANC MPs and the parliamentary opposition have been falling over themselves to congratulate the executive on a job well done – except that there were a few furious bellows from the DA – even when the most outrageous transgressions have been committed.

Even the strident EFF and its leader, Julius Malema, are not holding the executive to account. After tech radio entrepreneur Gareth Cliff voiced unhappiness with lockdown regulations, Malema found it more prudent to resort to threat, tweeting: “Let them try [to disobey the regulations]; Gareth Cliff must speed up the process so that they can learn a lifetime lesson very fast.”

Meanwhile, black people – Malema’s declared constituency – are being criminalised by the army and police every day, with nary a peep from the red-onesie army.

Where have the ANC MPs been, though? Since the declaration of the state of disaster in March, they have lost their tongues and their consciences.

In a different SA, an ANC MP would be waking up every day with the names of deceased citizens Collin Khosa and Petrus Miggels on her or his lips. Khosa was killed at his home in Alexandra township on Good Friday, allegedly by SA National Defence Force members. According to court papers, the members entered Khosa’s yard and accused him of breaking the lockdown regulations after they saw an unattended camping chair and a “half-full cup of alcohol” outside his house.

Miggels was killed on the first day of lockdown after he went out to buy beer. The police allegedly beat him up and left him for dead. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate closed the case within five days, saying he had died of a heart attack. (It’s reportedly reopened the investigation.)

Many other transgressions have taken place – and not a single ANC MP has stood up for the affected citizens. Indeed, when defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula appeared before MPs on April 23, they declared themselves satisfied that cases of heavy-handedness were isolated and that, overall, soldiers had been doing a good job during the lockdown. That was it. The end.

Many South Africans face hunger and starvation as the lockdown continues. In KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere there have been numerous reports of organisations and individuals being prevented from giving out food to the hungry because they do not have a government permit to do so.

While people starve, food is rotting in warehouses. As the Daily Maverick has reported: “The bureaucracy associated with giving out food during lockdown is cumbersome, time-consuming and varies from region to region.”

You would think ANC MPs would be enraged that “our people” are suffering in such a manner. Yet amid all the civil society voices decrying this bureaucracy, not a single ANC MP has spoken out.

Not only have these MPs neglected their duties, they have also run away from engaging in the public square. They are nowhere near any public discourse on the trajectory or handling of this or any crisis. If you scoured the media, you would think journalists, columnists and talk-show hosts were representatives of the people. They are here, there and everywhere, reporting and commenting on anything from food parcel politicisation to army brutality, cigarette bans and booze prohibitions.

Meanwhile ANC MPs complain volubly about a “set” media narrative, but do nothing about setting the agenda themselves. They complain about people writing about the cigarette ban, yet do nothing and say nothing about the issues that really matter: the politicisation of food parcel distribution, the economic catastrophe we face, the criminalisation of black women selling atchar in Soweto.

Recently two advocates demanded clarity on the powers of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s national coronavirus command council. Presidential spokesperson Khusela Diko said the structure is accountable to parliament. Really? Be that as it may, it really should be an ANC MP asking for clarification about who will be held responsible for the decisions of this structure, and whether its decisions are at all legally binding.

Just like sheep

For my sins I am on the parliamentary mailing list. Every day I receive e-mails in which our MPs have “noted”, “applauded” and “welcomed” all manner of outrages they should have been up in arms about.

On Friday a joint meeting of the portfolio committee on social development and the select committee on health & social services said it was “deeply saddened by the news of a 91-year-old elderly person who passed away while queuing for a social grant”.

A woman died queuing for a grant and all our MPs can say about it – instead of questions around the length of time she queued, the need for electronic payments, and so forth – is that they are deeply saddened.

It is hard to argue against those who say the ANC hates poor black people when you hear such things. Is this the ANC’s idea of parliamentary oversight?

On Friday co-operative governance & traditional affairs committee chair Faith Muthambi told department representatives that they “must work in close collaboration with the department of water & sanitation to supply, install and erect water tanks in all the communities that require water”. On Sunday, water minister Lindiwe Sisulu said in the Sunday Times: “We have taken the decision to phase out tankering water because the system is too corrupt.”

Basically, the chair of the parliamentary committee doesn’t even know the policies she is advocating. It’s a mess.

The reason ANC MPs are rubber-stamping executive decisions is because they are appointed by the party leadership, not by ordinary voters. The MP for Alexandra township would feel no pressure to campaign for justice for Khosa; he’ll be acting to please the ANC hierarchy – which has the power to return him to his cushy job – rather than for the people, who are his real bosses. They should be able to vote for that MP directly.

At the dawn of democracy, Nelson Mandela appointed a committee to review our electoral system. The Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert commission proposed a constituency-based electoral system with 300 MPs elected along constituency lines and 100 coming from parties.

The ANC leadership rejected it and instructed cabinet to throw out the recommendation. And so here we are, with most of our 400-member parliament following the executive like a bunch of sheep. Maybe they are.