By Valencia Talane
“Parliament has become dysfunctional in that I don’t know who my MP is.”
This is a quote attributed to social justice activist Zackie Achmat in People’s Power People’s Parliament a magazine distributed as part of a civil society conference held under the same title in 2012. The aim of the conference was to provide discourse around the country’s legislatures and their efficiency.
Achmat’s statement is more than just an arbitrary remark from someone who has been part of the freedom struggle for years. It is arguably the sentiment of many South Africans who look to Parliament as a democratic body to represent their wishes.
A memorandum drafted by conference participants was handed over to all of the country’s legislatures at the end of the event. A pertinent question asked by the groups concerned was whether Parliament and smaller provincial legislatures are living up to their mandates and if so, how effective are they in monitoring the use of state money.
Parliament is made up of two houses, the National Assembly – in which the interests of the country at national level are tackled – and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), which represents the interests of provinces.
The National Assembly is made up of 400 members, who are elected through a proportional representative system, while each of the nine provinces is represented by 10 MPs in the NCOP. Political parties hold the number of seats proportional to the votes they receive in the national election, with the same principle prevailing in the representation of provinces in the NCOP. Those who occupy the seats are not directly elected by the voters, but through a “closed list” system that allows their parties to pre-select them as representatives, presenting them to the public as part of the party’s package.
Accountability not working effectively
According to People’s Power, as many as 40% of South Africa’s eligible voters did not take part in the last election held in 2009. “The biggest opposition is not the DA,” said Achmat, “it’s the people who do not vote.”
In its current form, the electoral system does not allow citizens to directly choose who can represent them in Parliament. Instead, it is the political parties that select who they regard to be their best candidates.
One of the recommendations of the conference was for Parliament to help encourage a review of the current electoral system.
Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos, who also took part in the conference, told participants: “We already have a mixed [electoral] system in local government, but accountability is not really working…the reason for that is the way in which political parties control who gets selected to represent them.”
But as recently demonstrated in the case of former communications minister Dina Pule, nominated MPs can withdraw from the parliamentary list before the country goes to the polls. The controversial Pule announced two weeks after the publication of the ANC’s candidate list for Parliament – on which she appeared as candidate number 70 of 200 – that she would not be available for the post. Her nomination was widely criticised as she had been fired from her ministerial post in 2013 by President Jacob Zuma. She had faced investigations from both Parliament’s ethics committee and the public protector, with the latter finding her guilty of nepotism involving her romantic partner Phosane Mngqibisa.
“We [those who wrote South Africa’s Constitution] took the decision… [that] the main repository of power in representing the democratic will of the people should be Parliament, and Parliament chooses the president,” former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs has said.
What could go wrong: from Travelgate to Nkandla
Travelgate is a scandal that broke early in the 2000s and involved 40 MPs who were charged with defrauding Parliament. The MPs were accused of having spent travel vouchers provided under Parliament terms of business to take lavish trips by themselves or with members of their families in some cases. They achieved this, it was reported, by colluding with travel agencies to abuse the vouchers which were paid for by the state.
The scandal was first exposed by Sunday Times and having cost Parliament in the region of R18-million, was one of the biggest corruption scandals since the democratic system was introduced in 1994. The exact amount lost by Parliament to these dishonest acts by public representatives remains unknown.
The Constitution compels both houses of Parliament, as well as provincial legislatures, to facilitate public involvement in their decision-making processes. This means that government has a duty to consult with citizens before making decisions that it deems to be in their best interest.
Businessman Hugh Glenister took matters into his own hands in 2008, when the future of the country’s elite corruption-fighting unit, the Scorpions, came under threat. He applied in the Cape High Court to stop the MPs involved in Travelgate from participating in the vote to disband the Scorpions.
Two of Parliament’s portfolio committees – representing the justice and the safety and security (now police) sectors – had brought forward two bills for MPs to vote on. These would allow for the disbandment of the Scorpions. Glenister’s argument was that the MPs fingered in Travelgate would be in a conflict of interest since it was the Scorpions that had investigated them in the first place. In 2011 the Constitutional Court found that the disbandment of the Scorpions – which then gave way to the formation of the Hawks – was unconstitutional and ordered Parliament to rectify it.
Testing the integrity of Parliament-appointed institutions
Just as South Africans were outraged by Travelgate, an even bigger scandal had been brewing since the 1998 announcement by government of an acquisition of weapons as part of its defence strategy. The Strategic Defence Package, later to be known simply as the arms deal, cost South Africa over R30-billion up front at the time, and millions more in finance charges.
The bigger cost, claim after claim would reveal over the years, was to the credibility of the country’s leadership and Parliament. It was then-MP Patricia de Lille, leader of the Independent Democrats, who revealed to Parliament that she had evidence of several beneficiaries of bribes made under the arms deal umbrella. Another MP, Andrew Feinstein, who was part of Parliament’s oversight body the Standing Committee on Public Accounts at the time, resigned amid what he termed frustrations over his fellow MPs reluctance to give the arms deal corruption allegations the attention due to them.
While a commission of inquiry was finally established by Zuma to probe the alleged corruption in the arms deal, little faith remains among South Africans as to what, or any punishment, will be handed down to those who are found to have benefited unjustly.
In a test of the independence and integrity of Parliament-appointed institutions, the public protector’s office recently revealed its findings on renovations carried out at Zuma’s private home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal. Although her report found the President not personally responsible for exorbitant expenditure on the homestead – which was meant to get only essential and prescribed security upgrades from the public purse – almost R250-million was spent on the work at Nkandla. Not all of this was inappropriate, but the fact that Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found Zuma and his family to have benefited unjustly from the project, is a matter that cannot go unattended by Parliament, of which Zuma is a part.
A committee made up of representatives of the different parties will be convened by National Assembly speaker Max Sisulu to investigate the Nkandla matter further.