As South Africa’s executive under the ANC government has been enlarged and strengthened, proposed changes to the country’s national parliament seem set to weaken its capacity for oversight.
To date, National Assembly committees have been structured to shadow the work of a particular ministry their role being to hold departments to account; and to perform oversight interrogating departments’ policies, use of resources and performance. “Parliament’s particular value in our constitutional democracy is that, along with its mandate to represent and respond to the interests of citizens, it must conduct most of its work in public,” explains Samantha Waterhouse of the Community Law Centre, UWC.
However, the recent Rules committee meeting proposed plans to drastically reduce the institution’s committees and to restructure into cluster work. Although the details are not yet clear, proposals include merging various committees, such as Energy and Public Enterprises into one. In addition, and despite the reduction of committees, it was also proposed that committee membership be reduced from 13 to 11 members.
As citizen’s groups who engage with parliament to advance social justice, and who believe – as our Constitution stipulates – that Parliament is designated as the heart of our democracy, we are alarmed by this development.
“Unfortunately, it seems that as the executive gets pumped up, so parliament gets slimmed down”, observed Christi van der Westhuizen, a leading political analyst and author. Over the past 15 years, National Parliament’s authority and relevance have steadily declined. Consecutively, South Africa’s democratic parliaments have struggled to assert their oversight role over the executive. “Rather than strengthening oversight, the proposed restructuring will further diminish parliament's ability to fulfil its constitutional mandate of oversight over and ensuring accountability of the executive, “explains Sanja Bornman of the Women’s Legal Centre.
It is not only that fewer committees will reduce Parliament's capacity to deal with an even more bloated executive. “The proposal seems unworkable, committees have already struggled with overwhelming workloads, how can they function if they are doubled?" says Bornman. Constituting committees that have even more departments, programmes and policies to track will also mean they will have less specialist knowledge, one of the benefits of our current system.
The previous Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Police, Annelize van Wyk,is on record describing the challenges committees experience due to limited time and an overwhelming task of a single committee having to monitor a number of different departments and entities with large budgets. At a conference hosted by civil society in 2012, she described 12 to 13 hour working days to meet deadlines.
“Our challenges remain independent information.. and time, time and again time – it’s a huge challenge,” she stated.
Similarly, the previous Committee focussed on Justice had a particularly high law reform work-load, as well as being mandated to monitor the strategic focus, quality of work, accountability and spending of the Department, and at least three other major entities within that. Added to this it must, by law, perform annual oversight over the implementation of several pieces of legislation. By its own account it has failed to perform this oversight over the past three years due to insufficient time.
In the proposed structure, it’s difficult to see how incorporating the portfolios, can address these challenges. Committees cannot effectively fulfil their mandate when their work is doubled and their time halved.
The Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) indicates while committees may ask the right questions, time limits prevent proper engagement on these. “Although responses were asked for in writing, departments often failed to do so and committees failed to follow up. If more entities are added, it’s going to become impossible to be serious about oversight,” explains Gaile Fullard, director of the PMG.
The issue of failed follow-up is particularly poignant in terms of the crises in education and health services: In January 2012, the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education noted in its oversight visit report to Limpopo that it had requested follow up and response from the Department regarding the non-delivery of textbooks. Unfortunately, the department never responded, and the Committee never followed up. The failure of the previous Portfolio Committee on Health to effectively intervene between the KZN Provincial Department of Health and the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) has meant that lab services in that province have been discontinued, putting millions at risk of late detection of HIV/Aids and TB. “Slapping health in with another public service in the ‘cluster’ would be disastrous to sectors already in crisis,” stated Thoko Madonko of Section 27.
Parliament is tasked with representing and responding to citizens, and using its framework has done this at times such as in the case of the Protection of Information Bill as well as the Traditional Courts Bill. The changes proposed in the Rules Committee threaten these. “Public engagement will no doubt be undermined if a single committee is expected to scrutinise, listen to citizen input, and make a meaningful contribution to the budgets of multiple entities under severe time constraints,” argues Waterhouse.
“The proposal to reduce the number of committees will lead to a weakened parliament, and in turn, a weaker democracy. Alongside the Public Protector, this is yet another key institution being hung out to dry,” said Keren Ben-Zeev from the Heinrich Boell Foundation. van der Westhuizen, sums it up: “The proposals tabled in the Rules Committee are a perfect example of sticking to the letter but not the spirit of the Constitution. In other words – parliament as an institution in such a compromised form – including now, sheer capacity – can only fail at its function.”
The Community Law Centre, UWC