May 18, 2021

Fifth parliament for Dummies, or how to make sense of the last five years

The fifth parliament has been a parliament of firsts. It was the first time bloody noses were seen in the chamber, the first time the riot police were called into the house, the first time members were manhandled and thrown out by security staff. Remember when parliament used to be boring?

The 2014 election introduced a parliament of novices; more than half the seats in the National Assembly were taken by members who had never been there before and more than 80% of permanent delegates to the National Council of Provinces were rookies. It was all change, which is good, except when it all goes bad.

One of the first things to go was the dress code. Democracy had already introduced Madiba shirts and traditional gear to parliament, but hard hats and overalls? The EFF introduced a whole new look in the House, but more importantly it also brought a new style of opposition. Out with the decorum of the Westminster system. Spurious point of orders, filibustering, walkouts, obscene hand gestures and unparliamentary language became common practice and had legal support staff frequently consulting the parliamentary rules book.

Members, mostly from the EFF, broke with tradition and ignored the instructions of the Sergeant at Arms. Non-compliance with the Speaker’s orders also soon became commonplace.

Much of the early fifth parliament was overshadowed by the Nkandla scandal. The 2015’s first presidential question time was suspended when the EFF would allowd only one question: When would former president Zuma “pay back the money” – the alleged R246m taxpayer-funded security upgrades to his private residence reported by the then Public Protector? This too became a familiar refrain, usually accompanied by chanting, shouting, banging on tables and otherwise thoroughly unparliamentary chaos ‑ until the Constitutional Court overruled the parliamentary resolution that absolved Zuma, describing it as “inconsistent and invalid”.

Out with the decorum of the Westminster system. Spurious point of orders, filibustering, walkouts, obscene hand gestures and unparliamentary language became common practice.

The fifth parliament, which had got off to a bad start, reached an all-time low on 12 February 2015 when cellphone signals were jammed, effectively censoring the unfolding events at the State of the Nation Address.

That first year of the fifth parliament saw Parliament’s own storming of the Bastille in the form of an early protest by Fees Must Fall students who found the parliamentary gates unlocked and entered with crossed arms raised to indicate that they come in peace. Peaceful or not, the budget debate was in process and the entire cabinet was in the House, which meant the security forces were having none of it. Soon the precinct was wreathed in teargas in what must have also have been a parliamentary first.

Another first was the setting up of an office at parliament for the State Security Agency when a large contingent arrived from Pretoria, at the invitation of the Secretary to Parliament, tasked with security vetting all members of staff.

That was also the year of Parliament’s first-ever labour dispute, which resulted in more teargas and a crippling month-long strike, ending in a lockout which forced toyi-toying parliamentary staff onto the streets.

Parliament’s labour problems spilled over into 2016 with contestation over staff assessments and another illegal strike, though this one was brief and fairly inconsequential. Nevertheless, allegations against the newly appointed Secretary of Parliament, Gengezi Mgidlana, started coming in from organised labour and individual staffers, and labour disaffection has never been fully resolved, with the “protest suicide” of a manager against bullying and poor management in parliament who shot himself in his office in 2018.

The fifth parliament was marked by turbulence throughout its five years. A total of eight attempts to unseat Jacob Zuma as president all failed, although the final motion in 2017, which was conducted by an unprecedented secret ballot, lost by only 21 votes.

Yet another first was a motion to dissolve parliament, which was roundly defeated with only 83 MPs supporting the motion. Yet another first was when parliamentary did the unthinkable and postponed the State of the Nation Address (SONA).

The Parliamentary Monitoring Group described it thus: “Even by this Parliament’s unpredictable standards, this was an extraordinary decision.” It went on to say, “[T]he stated rationale for the postponement was to ‘create room for establishing a much more conducive political environment in Parliament’. In reality, Parliament was in limbo and a bystander as internal party politics (the ANC negotiating the exit of the President) seemingly usurped parliamentary processes.”

This was understandable, given that the Gupta leaks exposing Zuma corruption were growing into the State Capture tsumani which nearly washed away everything democracy was trying to accomplish.

Apart from its hallmark chaos and turbulence, two further characteristics defined the fifth parliament: First, this legislature demonstrated a growing tendency to rely on the courts to resolve its internal contestation. Sometimes as defendant, other times as applicant, it ran up massive costs for taxpayers in legal bills.

Second, so preoccupied was the fifth parliament with inter- (and intra-) party rivalry, that a bottleneck soon emerged in its chief task, which was to pass legislation, and an increasing number of acts were returned by the president or the courts requiring legislative repair work.

As early as 2016 the Parliamentary Monitoring Group noted “an interesting and noticeable increase in the number of bills that had been returned to Parliament by the President “either due to constitutional or procedural reservations”. The PMG commented at the time, “This of course calls into question Parliament’s ability to process legislation effectively and is bound to have some ripple effect.” PMG also noted back then that Parliament was hampered in passing bills and appointments in part due to poor attendance of Members at plenaries and committee meetings.

In the 2015 calendar year, the legislature passed 25 bills, leaving 24 in the legislative pipeline for the following year. During 2016 and 2017, parliament passed 18 bills each year, with a growing number getting left behind. By the end of 2016, 27 bills awaited processing by both Houses; a year later there were about 40 bills in line. Parliament passed 23 bills in 2018, but by then it was already running out of time.

During the very last weeks of the fifth parliament attention turned back to legislative duties. In an impressive last-minute attempt to push an unprecedented number of bills made their way through both houses. But you cannot rush the legislative process. It will be interesting to note how many land up in court for shoddy legislative workmanship.

So, can anything good be said of the fifth parliament? No assessment could possibly be complete without due praise for the committees. It is generally accepted that this is where the real work of parliament takes place. The Parliamentary Monitoring Group recorded 800 committee meetings in 2015, 1,200 in 2016, 1,400 in 2017 and another 1,400 in 2018. By the time of writing they hadn’t yet started a count for the last months of the fifth parliament in 2019.

It’s impossible to sift through the work that they tackled. The Standing Committee on Finance tracked illicit financial flows. The Standing Committee on Appropriations adopted a “risk statement” that identified government programmes that provide critical public services, but are weak on implementation. In terms of volume of meetings, no one comes close to the Trade and Industry Committee, which was primarily occupied with multiple pieces of important and complex legislation, and got the National Credit Amendment Bill into law to help vulnerable people who are over-indebted. As for speed of execution, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Funding of Political Parties processed legislation in record time, after waiting 20 years before the need for legal monitoring of party funding was taken seriously.

But the award for the Best Committee of the fifth parliament must go to the indefatigable Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) and its determined chairperson, the only non-ANC committee chair, Themba Godi. Scopa went after irregular, wasteful and fruitless expenditure by government institutions, pursued crime and, to its immense credit and the gratitude of many citizens, identified financial mismanagement, non-adherence to supply-chain management, weak internal control” particularly in state-owned entities, non-compliance with laws and regulations, particularly the Constitution, the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA), Treasury regulations, the Public Service Act and public service regulations in government departments and state-owned entities.

Scopa led the charge against Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini and her South African Social Security Agency. The result was the termination of the Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) contract, which was declared irregular. Another key achievement was its role in requesting that the South African Social Security Agency negotiate with the South African Post Office (Sapo), to establish whether the role performed by CPS could be done by Sapo. The agreement reached saved the state a substantial sum of money.

Moira Levy

Thanks to PMG for the photo collage

Last modified on Sunday, 05 May 2019 18:15

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Notes from the House is an independent online publication that tracks and monitors Parliament’s role in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to improve the lives of South African citizens. Published by Moira Levy with the support of the Claude Leon Foundation.

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