Making MPs accountable not beholden

2009-01-17 00:00

South Africans are inordinately and rightly proud of their Constitution, which has kept democracy breathing in a country where the ruling party has an oppressive two-thirds parliamentary majority. Unfortunately, Parliament itself, as it is at present constituted, is nothing to be proud of.

Because parliamentarians are obligated to the party bosses who appoint them to the electoral lists, South Africa’s public representatives are generally a craven lot. They are mostly held in low esteem by the public.

When they are not cashing in fraudulent travel vouchers, or inflating their expenses, parliamentarians are best known for sleeping on the job. Literally and figuratively.

The parliamentary channel on television, designed to show that MPs are hard at work building the new South Africa, was controversial from the start. Parliamentarians became irate over the siting of the cameras because they mostly showed great expanses of benches, empty except for the occasional snoozing MP.

It is, however, in its oversight role that Parliament has been most dilatory and dozy. It failed dismally to rein in the executive, allowing former president Thabo Mbeki to bully it and ignore it in turn, abrogating all power to his office and rarely appearing within Parliament’s portals.

The opposition parties, especially the Democratic Alliance, have done their best to use the protection and public platform that Parliament provides to question, cajole and harass ministers, but to limited effect. With the connivance of docile African National Congress MPs, cabinet ministers treated the institution with disdain.

Until now, this has been exactly the way that the ANC government has liked things to be. Although two investigations were ordered into the workings of Parliament during the Mbeki era — the Frederik van Zyl Slabbert Commission into improving the electoral system and academic Hugh Corder’s report on parliamentary oversight — their findings were ignored.

For any of this to change, the ANC had to change. It had to realise that a slavish Parliament was not only damaging the national interest, but it was also bad for the party itself. Not until the putsch at Polokwane was this brought home to the ANC. It is significant that it was the ANC membership within the party structures that rebelled against the Mbeki administration’s authoritarianism, not the ANC MPs.

The difference between the rebellious branch delegates to the party’s Polokwane conference and the ANC parliamentary lambs was simple: the former were accountable to the membership that elected them; the latter are beholden to the party bosses who compile the party list.

Suddenly a robust Parliament has, apparently, become attractive to the ANC.

A panel of the great and the good this week reported on how the parliamentary system could be improved in order to strengthen democracy.

If their recommendations are accepted, and the presence of ANC notables on the panel makes this more likely than before, the most important change will be in the electoral system. The panel agreed that there should be a combination of proportional representation and a constituency system — weakening the power of the party bosses — to ensure greater accountability.

The Speaker will no longer be a party apparatchik, Parliament will contrive “to improve the quality and substance of debate”, it will tackle cabinet ministers about questions left unanswered and crooks will be banished.

All pretty obvious stuff. Whether it happens or not depends on the new parliamentarians elected later this year having the courage to place the broader interests of the people above the demands of the party bosses.

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