17 June 2009

South Africa: Parliament Needs Change to Strengthen MPs' Oversight Muscle


Yet, little seems to change, and when it does, it is not always for the better. There is a feeling that Parliament adopted all necessary legislation in the past 15 years, and must now concentrate on overseeing its implementation. Accordingly, the two-week-long seminar organised for returning and new MPs focus ed on incisive oversight to ensure better delivery and prevent corruption.

However, it was all about the dialectic between Parliament and the executive. Parliament is now about the African National Congress (ANC) controlling itself through its own structures. Yet democracy is less about majority rule than about minorities exercising oversight over the majority.

In spite of the constitutional requirement that they must promote the role of the opposition, parliamentary rules have taken away most of the opposition's prerogatives, weakening democracy at its core. The most flagrant feature of this creeping coup d'etat is the abolition of the right to introduce legislation which the constitution unreservedly vests in each MP who can introduce any bill, except a money bill .

This right can be restored only if the ANC majority so chooses through its private members committee. In established democracies, MPs have the right to introduce legislation in their portfolio committees. If their bills do not receive parliamentary or popular support, they are disposed of or ignored until they lapse.

The ANC has 62% of the MPs in a constitutional system which endorses rigid party discipline -- MPs lose their parliamentary seat if their party membership is terminated. Having ANC-controlled committees exercising oversight over senior ANC ministers is like relying on dogs to wear muzzles of their own accord.

The camaraderie within ANC ranks has already transformed oversight from a constitutional check and balance into a review mechanism which assists the executive in performing its functions. MPs perform more as liaison officers between the government and constituencies than as the watchdogs of the executive, which the constitution requires them to be.

The National Assembly has carried over old apartheid parliamentary rules and changed them to reduce the opposition's oversight function. For instance, in 1995, the Westminster- styled unprepared question time was abolished, as former president Nelson Mandela was deemed too elderly. It was never reintroduced.

In a letter to the speaker and in the rules committee, we noted that these rules have not been approved by the National Assembly, which has automatically passed them from one Parliament on to the next, going back to apartheid. This praxis is unconstitutional as each new Parliament is reborn anew with no commitment or pending legislation from the previous one, and holds its first meeting under rules designed by the chief justice.

It is constitutionally incumbent on the National Assembly to readopt its rules and, in so doing, reintroduce standard minority protection and expunge unconstitutional features such as the abrogation of MPs' right to introduce legislation. The only approach consistent with the constitution and internationally accepted principles is that of allowing MPs to introduce bills in their relevant portfolio committee without prior scrutiny or approval.

This issue cuts across political lines and affects the freedom and empowerment of ANC backbenchers, which is critical to our democracy. It is about promoting the centrality of Parliament and unleashing the full measure of legislative initiative and oversight capacity which Parliament may contribute towards solving the country's many problems.

It is also about the clash between the old apartheid centralist, top-down authoritarian mind-sets and the promises of change of the Zuma era. We call on the ANC to make Parliament stronger by empowering both the opposition and MPs within its own ranks.

Oriani-Ambrosini is an Inkatha Freedom Party MP.

Copyright © 2009 Business Day. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.