Tabling of Parliament’s Budget Vote in the National Assembly (NA), the Speaker of the NA, Ms Thandi Modise, highlighted the need for the national legislature to invest in information and communications technology (ICT) and have a relook at the employment processes and models to adjust to the fast-changing world of work.

Ms Modise said in response to coronavirus, Parliament had to adjust to new organisational and procedural solutions for legislative work to continue during Covid-19. She said: “We are ready to accept that virtual, hybrid, and work from home systems will be with us for a while as we must hold the executive to account.

“The challenges of the lockdown notwithstanding, we managed to have oversight work, first in clusters and then as committees, reports were produced, oversight visits were conducted; law-making sessions took place, public hearings were held; interviews for crucial government posts were held; quarterly reports, and budget votes conducted – our international work, as well as international agreements were processed. We held at least 48 virtual meetings.”

The Speaker also affirmed that Parliament will continue to focus on the resolve to strengthen its performance and to improve efficiency in law-making and oversight, and to constantly look at the performance and needs of committees and individual Members of Parliament (MPs) to ensure that they adequately represent the public.

Ms Modise also acknowledged that though times have changed, the country and world were still dealing with poverty, inequality and rising joblessness, and that the coronavirus pandemic has simply increased and exaggerated the contradictions under a non-performing world economy which engender deep feelings of fear and frustration.

She also touched on the Constitutional Court ruling that independent candidates should be allowed to stand for office without belonging to any political party, and said Parliament must meet the deadline given by the court to enact the required law.

Parliament also hopes to increase public awareness by featuring programmes and documentaries on Parliament TV, to boost access to information and educational materials to the public, and to increase participation in law-making and oversight.

The Co-Chairperson of the Joint Standing Committee on the Financial Management of Parliament, Ms Peace Mabe, said the submissions at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into allegations of state capture were critical and should be used as a lesson to improve the work of Parliament.

“The submissions have taught us that our committees are not adequately resourced, are not vigilant enough, do not follow through enough and often are reliant on what comes before them rather than taking what is presented as a trigger to begin their own investigations.

“Our oversight must ask questions, follow up on issues and not draw assumptions. When allegations are made, committees must demand facts and evidence and act informed by the balance of evidence – for this to happen we have to address the resources allocated to Parliament,” Ms Mabe said.

She said the current budget allocation to Parliament, by the admission of the National Treasury, is going to have a negative impact on Parliament’s efforts to increase its effectiveness. Parliament’s allocation for this financial year is R2.6 billion.

Ms Mabe proposed a thorough review on how Parliament is resourced without compromising on its independence and constitutional status.

The Deputy Chief Whip of the Official Opposition in the NA, Mr Jacques Julius, claimed that the Parliament’s programmes, targets and performance indicators were skewed, and that there was no performance indicator for quality on the budget vote.

“These targets and performance indicators will not wake up Parliament, this budget will keep Parliament fast asleep and an expected apology again over the years to come,” said Mr Julius.

He also accused parliamentarians from the ruling party of not doing enough to hold the executive accountable and called on them to “ask uncomfortable questions and stop the sweetheart questions” to Ministers and Deputy Ministers.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), through its Member of Parliament, Ms Veronica Mente, rejected the proposed budget of Parliament, arguing that it was informed by “a misguided austerity doctrine which seeks to collapse the state, including the collapse of the democratically elected public representatives to hold the government accountable”.

She also added her voice on the debate about the feasibility of relocating Parliament, saying that to continue to have Parliament in Cape Town was “simply to please colonial arrangements that sought to bring together white colonial racists”.

She said: “We must move Parliament to a central location accessible to the majority of our people to make Parliament truly the people’s Parliament. Our people from Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West, Free State and some people from KwaZulu-Natal will be able to drive to Parliament, make input on legislation, hold the executive to account and still be able to go back to their families – something that they cannot do currently because Cape Town for many is a very foreign country.”

Mr Narend Signh, the Chief `Whip  of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in the NA, commended Parliament for its response to Covid-19 by adopting a new normal as well as embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution in terms of the manner in which parliamentary business was conducted.

“The question that must be asked is whether we were able to fulfil our mandate and responsibilities as servants of the citizenry – the answer to some extent is in the affirmative, we admit we have passed budget, considered legislation, received ministerial reports, and had question sessions. However, due to Covid-19 we were not able to engage with the public as per normal, we are accountable to the people in the first place,” he said.

Mr Singh suggested that the funds that Parliament saved from travel and hoisting events such as Sona should be reallocated to Parliamentary Constituency Offices to ensure these were fully functional and resourced.

“These offices should be functioning as a conduit allowing constituency challenges and problems to reach the highest levels of government, however looking at the budget set aside for constituency offices and allowances, the objective of taking Parliament to the people will most certainly not be met.

“The IFP suggests that we utilise the savings from travel and other costs and reallocate them to ensure that constituency offices are viable conduits in addressing and attending to queries from members of the public,” added Mr Singh.

Mr Corne Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus dismissed the argument that the problem of Parliament was as a result of committees being inadequately resourced.

“In my view the problem is that the executive and legislative branches of the state are too close to one another, if there is stronger separation between the executive and the legislative branch, it will be better and more easy to keep the executive to account,” Mr Mulder said.

The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) wants Parliament to return to a state of normality and for the Covid-19 state of emergency regulations to be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny.

“If we are serious about holding the executive to account, we need to amend the Disaster Management Act to improve parliamentary oversight and to stop executive encroachment on the legislative authority of Parliament,” said Mr Steve Swart of the ACDP.

The call for Parliament to go back to normality was supported by Mr Nqabayomzi Kwankwa of the United Democratic Movement (UDM) with the view that “while virtual meetings have served their purpose, but to some extent Parliament is beginning to lose its home ground advantage due to virtual meetings”. He also suggested that at some point Parliament needs to consider conducting a study on the effectiveness of virtual meetings in oversight.

Reacting to the Speaker’s submission to the Zondo Commission where she apologised for Parliament’s failure to follow up on allegations of state capture, Mr Kwankwa argued that “it was not Parliament that failed, but some MPs that failed South Africa.

He said: “It is regrettable that the Speaker apologised for Parliament – but it was not Parliament that failed, it was ANC deployees and MPs that failed South Africa, while the opposition tried to hold the executive to account, the ruling party mollycoddled and defended the executive in committees and in the House.”

The National Freedom Party’s Ahmed Shaik-Emam was concerned about the lack of follow-up on committee oversight reports and implementation of recommendations.

“The issue of oversight is a concern, while all political parties participate in the oversight process, all we do when we come back is that the reports are adopted by Parliament and that’s where it ends and it goes into the bin, with very little or nothing happening, no consequences based on the reports and our findings, and we believe that is a problem,” he said.

Mr Shaik-Emam also demanded better clarity on the management of constituency funds, saying currently there is not enough clarity on exactly what the funds can and cannot be used for.

“We want more clarity but also importantly, to ensure that those funds are used for the right purpose, that is, to promote Parliament to the people,” said Shaik-Emam.

Al Jama’ah complained about the lack of support from the Parliamentary Legal Services to smaller parties in drafting and processing Private Members’ Bills (PMB).

“Where Parliament is lacking in supporting Private Members’ Bills by smaller parties, they can’t discriminate against us, we submitted a PMB some time ago and there seems to be no progress – smaller parties must be given the same assistance as the governing party,” pleaded Al Jama’ah Member of the National Assembly, Mr Ganief Hendricks.

By Sakhile Mokoena
2 June 2021