SA’s R250m constituency mystery

2014-08-31 15:00

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Every year, taxpayers spend about R250?million – a full round of upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla home – on constituency offices for MPs.

But very little is done to follow up on what happens to that money and taxpayers must rely on political parties for guarantees that the millions aren’t disappearing into the ether.

The constituency system is supposed to give ordinary citizens access to MPs.

Four years ago, an Afrobarometer study found that only 3% of South Africans could name their local MP and just 1% of about 3?000 respondents to a News24 survey knew who their local MP was.

In the current financial year, about R242?million in constituency money will be paid to political parties. Next year, that will climb to nearly R260?million.

Financial statements obtained by City Press under information law show taxpayers spent more than R1?billion on constituencies between 2009 and last year.

Political parties are supposed to give the secretary of Parliament the addresses and telephone numbers of all their constituency offices every March.

Parliament’s media office didn’t respond to a request from City Press for the list, and one of Parliament’s own officials who recently asked for it also had no response.

Last week, three months after the elections, the ANC was still allocating constituencies and some MPs spent the week that was meant to be used for constituency work at by-elections instead.

There’s no requirement under Parliament’s current policy for political parties to ensure that every part of the country has access to an office where citizens can ask for help on legislation or problems they have with government. The location of these offices is left entirely up to political parties.

The Parliamentary Monitoring Group recently went online with a new website called The People’s Assembly, which summarises each MP’s work.

The site contains information about each MP’s constituency office as well as a feedback form for citizens.

The organisation’s executive director, Gaile Fullard, said it was “terribly difficult” to get parties’ constituency information, “which is crazy as this should be openly available to the electorate”.

Fullard added that 52% of the National Assembly and 86% of the national council of provinces’ current MPs are new, which makes it even more difficult to collate all the information.

According to Gregory Solik of pressure group My Vote Counts, the current legislation governing the use of constituency money contained contradictions and his organisation was awaiting a legal opinion on it.

He said: “Everything around these funds is vague. The wording of the policy is vague, the reporting is vague, the enforcement is vague.”

The system is “too haphazard”, according to UDM leader Bantu Holomisa. “Whether MPs are doing what they’re supposed to is not monitored properly. It will have to be tightened. We visit all the provinces, and our MPs have to submit lists with complaints and other issues after every constituency period. That is how we monitor our work,” he said.

Vince Smith, the ANC MP responsible for the party’s constituency funds, said money for constituency work was paid in tranches. MPs only received the next part of their allowance once they had accounted for the previous tranche’s expenses, according to Smith.

Congress of the People MP Deidré Carter said constituency work was too politicised. “As MPs, we are supposed to do oversight, but often there are only a few who do it.”

According to her, the solution lay in reforming the electoral system so constituencies directly elect representatives, and MPs are not chosen by political parties.

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