May 25, 2020

MPs welcomed back from yet another recess

The South African parliament is fast becoming a parliament functioning in the breach rather than in the main, writes JAN-JAN JOUBERT. Over the 35 weeks of the first eight months of this year, parliament was in session for only 13 weeks, and dysfunctional or in recess for fully 22 weeks.

Parliament only really convened on 7 February, with nearly all MPs having done little to no legislative work for the whole month of January and the first week of February, save for some in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) who finalised small changes to the Electoral Act.

The first State of the Nation address (SONA) for the year was delivered by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 7 February, followed by the debate on SONA and the President’s reply, taking up most of the rest of the week. This was followed by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s national Budget Speech and debate.

For the first eight months of this year, parliament was in session for only 13 weeks.

Thereafter Parliament functioned quite diligently and effectively until the end of March, passing some legislation and preparing legacy reports

From 29 March through to the May 8 elections, parliament was in recess as politicians campaigned for elections. This was followed by two weeks in which the only action was the swearing in of MPs, which involved a lot of flying in and out of Cape Town, on 22 May (National Assembly [NA]) and 23 May (NCOP).

This was followed by another hiatus of a month while the President and the ANC decided on the composition of cabinet and who the parliamentary portfolio committee chairs would be. This was the scene of bitterly fought factional battles in the governing party with daggers being drawn and decisions being drawn out, while neither plenaries nor committee meetings took place.

MPs were being paid their salaries in full – as were all the secretaries, committee clerks, security staff, bureaucrats, researchers, HR specialists, legal eagles and all sorts at Parliament.

Much time in these long breaks are not classified as recesses by parliament, but as “constituency periods”. Given that parliament keeps zero record of whether MPs are actually in their constituencies, whether any work gets done there and whether any constituency office does whatever it is supposed to do, the opportunities for doing very little abound. No doubt some MPs work very hard in their constituencies, but who can tell given that so little accountability to parliament is required?

At last, on 20 June, President Ramaphosa delivered his second SONA address, which was then followed by the debate on the SONA and the President’s reply taking up the next week. This was followed by a crazy four weeks of budget vote debates. These budget vote debates – of which there are about 40 ‑ are squeezed into such a short space of time, three concurrently in different venues rushed through in two, sometimes three and even four sessions per day. Only the debate on the presidency takes up two days, and the parliamentary Budget Vote demands for itself a full day -

This rushed process becomes a box-ticking exercise. What used to be the Budget debate – the high point of any department’s submission to the public oversight so vaunted in our Constitution ‑ becomes a nasty, rushed affair, which is attended by very few MPs per session. Parliament calls it an extended public committee.

What is the point if MPs vote for or against departmental budget votes, most of which they have not the faintest idea of, having not attended any portfolio committees except those they specifically serve on. Is this really an extended public committee, or a rushed job with a fancy name?

The Chief Whip of the Opposition, John Steenhuisen, served notice this year that the DA did not believe due process was being followed and that it was considering challenging the whole budgetary process. It would be high time if they did. The problem for the DA, though, is that it is complicit through its participation, which makes its bark much worse than its bite in such matters which are so important to the soul of our democracy.

The budget vote (or extended public committee) process was rushed through by 25 July, after which the house rose for another recess of three weeks. MPs have just returned for the second term, which will extend over all of five weeks before the next recess. It is also worth considering that parliament functioning at full throttle only really meets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and sometimes on a Friday morning. Monday is “constituency day” and on weekends Parliament is a dead zone.

Jan-Jan Joubert is a freelance political and parliamentary journalist.

Last modified on Sunday, 25 August 2019 19:50

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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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