10 March 2008

South Africa: Sleeping Giant Has Awoken But is Yet to Prove Itself


Johannesburg — THE winds of change are blowing through the corridors of Parliament, or so it seems. Since some time last year, there have clearly been a few shifts within the African National Congress's (ANC's) parliamentary caucus.

This year, further structural change came in the form of a new chief whip, the younger, more energetic, Nathi Mthethwa. He replaced the rather lethargic Isaac Mogase, inauspiciously caught napping in his seat in the early days of his new job.

Since the arms deal, one could argue that Parliament has been virtually emasculated. The story of a public accounts committee torn asunder by party political pressure is a well-known one. MPs such as the ANC's Andrew Feinstein, Gavin Woods, then of the IFP, and the Democratic Alliance's Raenette Taljaard were all, in one way or another, casualties of the parliamentary investigation into the arms deal. Feinstein's dramatic descent into the political wilderness for asking difficult questions about the arms deal was a warning to MPs who dared flex their muscles against the executive.

But those were very different political times, characterised by an unassailable executive. Post-Polokwane, the political landscape remains most fluid.

Crucially, power has seeped away from the executive as the ANC grapples with the now stark differences between the party in government and Luthuli House. The fluidity continues to express itself in all areas of our public discourse and within our institutions generally. Parliament is no different in that respect. The ANC parliamentary caucus simply reflects the political fluidity of the moment. It is for this reason that MPs suddenly find themselves with the political space for manoeuvre and the ability to question the executive openly.

In the past week alone, we have seen Parliament take on several thorny issues. It has wrestled with the S A B C 's report on the "black-listing" of certain analysts on its news broadcasts, it has hauled Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to Parliament, has rapped home affairs director-general Mavuso Msimang over the knuckles (probably unfairly) and has taken Cricket SA to task on issues of transformation.

And there are several other examples, from the public accounts committee's dealing with the Land Bank and several other departments with qualified audits, to the correctional services committee, which in the person of its chairman, Dennis Bloem, has become more proactive.

So, how do we make sense of this sudden "reinvigoration" of Parliament?

Some see the newfound robustness as a certain "democratic dividend of Polokwane". For too long now, Parliament has been tired, mostly reactive and seldom proactive in raising debate or questioning the status quo.

In addition, the so-called "Travelgate" saga did not assist Parliament in retaining public trust or improving its image as a "rubber stamp" for the executive in some quarters. Never before has the health minister, even during the height of the AIDS crisis, been called to account.

Indeed, as radio talk show host John Perlman pointed out last week, the ANC within Parliament has been rather late in calling for accountability within the public broadcaster on its "blacklisting" report. Where has Parliament been on these and other key issues over the past years? The examples of robust oversight have been there over the years, but they have been few and far between and far too dependent on personalities to drive the issues. So energetic and principled MPs such as Jeremy Cronin, Barbara Hogan, Kader Asmal, Ben Turok and others have often shown up their more complacent colleagues.

What is clear and probably predictable is that the ANC within Parliament is unable to separate itself from the political turmoil within the party.

As the party list conference and next year's elections loom, there will inevitably be tensions as party members fight to retain their positions on the party list.

The question for the ANC within Parliament is how it is able to use the political space to ensure that oversight over the executive does not become a game of opportunistic brinkmanship, but really does become about holding the executive to account in a way which places public interest above that of the party.

This will mean that those MPs who are earnest in their attempt to reinvigorate Parliament as the articulator of the will of citizens and a true "People's Parliament" will be in a position to use the political space creatively and constructively, as the constitution envisages.

But Parliament is not only for the ANC, despite its overwhelming electoral majority. Opposition parties also have a vital role to play in ensuring that the executive is held to account. Inasmuch as space is opening for members of the ruling party, it creates new spaces for opposition MPs to extract concessions or work towards consensus, if that is appropriate.

It also provides an opportunity for the opposition to think more strategically about its role within Parliament.

Is the opposition merely a shrill, reactive force or is it seriously attempting to engage with the most difficult issues of the day?

Whether the new sense of robustness within Parliament is a truly democratic dividend, only time will tell. There is a chance for this to be a precedent-setting political moment, one in which members of the executive are called to account in ways that entrench a culture of oversight and accountability, thereby enhancing Parliament as a pivotal national institution.

The true test for the ANC within Parliament will, of course, come after next year's elections. With a new executive in place, will ANC MPs continue to hold the executive to account in so vociferous a manner? If it does, then South African citizens can truly say they have reaped the benefits of Polokwane.

February is head of Idasa's political information & monitoring service.

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