Parliament 2016: The highs and the lows

This was a year of lows on many fronts in our body politic and Parliament was not spared.

LOWS

Violating the Constitution

Who can forget the scathing Constitutional Court judgment in March this year against the National Assembly – alongside the president – where the House was found to have acted inconsistently with the Constitution?

The court found that the National Assembly failed in its constitutional obligations to hold President Jacob Zuma accountable when it did not facilitate compliance with the Public Protector’s remedial action with regards to the Nkandla saga.

The Constitutional Court found that the resolution passed by the National Assembly, absolving the president from compliance with the remedial action taken by the Public Protector, was inconsistent with sections of the Constitution.

Absent MPs

The National Assembly could only pass the Division of Revenue Amendment Bill on its third attempt last month because on two previous occasions, there were simply not enough MPs in the House to pass the bill. This followed walkouts by some opposition MPs in a deliberate attempt to frustrate quorum. The bill lays down how the total government revenue should be divided and allocated between the spheres of government and within government.

The ANC, as the governing party and with its whopping 249 MPs, could easily have passed the bill the first time, if only its own MPs attended parliamentary plenary sessions instead of sauntering through Cape Town malls.

Maybe it’s time Parliament got serious and dealt with ill discipline. After all, Parliament, not political parties, pays MPs’ salaries.

Lowering standards

The National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) is meant to ensure responsiveness to the aspirations and challenges experienced by young South African people.

The special committee established to recruit people to the board went out of its way and restarted a recruitment process for NYDA board members, where it dropped the requirement for academic qualifications for potential candidates. This while the agency continues to lobby Treasury for more funding.

NYDA has previously been mired in controversy, but over the last few years, it has been turning itself around, even receiving clean audit opinions from the Auditor-General. But Parliament wants to undo all that by appointing people whose only qualification is their ANC membership.

Securitisation of Parliament

The securitisation of Parliament continues. Instead of finding political solutions to its problems with the Economic Freedom Fighters, Parliament has recruited more bouncers from the police in untransparent circumstances. More police have been deployed to the precinct and it has become more stringent for ordinary South Africans to gain access to the institution. It still remains to be seen whether the institution will install bulletproof glass separating MPs from visitors in the chambers, as planned.

Poor administration, expensive habits

On the administration front, while the strike by the National Health Education and Allied Workers’ Union ended in December last year, a number of the resolutions remain unimplemented. Attempts by workers to raise their grievances this year were suppressed by the institution’s management, with at least three shop stewards suspended in June. While they were later reinstated after a warning, the union is in effect gagged by Parliament with staff morale at its lowest in recent years. Maybe it’s time for the political leadership to show just that – leadership.

Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana’s taste for luxury at the expense of the taxpayer continues unabated and, despite calls on public servants to tighten their belts, Mgidlana spends nights in five-star hotels and insists on chauffeur-driven vehicle services.

HIGHS

SABC ad hoc committee

As with all dark clouds, Parliament had its silver linings. The institution closed on a high note as the multiparty ad hoc committee probing the SABC listened to hours of damning evidence about the governance failures at the corporation. It grilled witnesses, including Communications Minister Faith Muthambi, as MPs showed a new found vigour to hold those occupying public office accountable.

The inquiry itself, which continues in January, is long overdue. To a large extent, Parliament has been complicit in the manifestation of the rot at the SABC, but one hopes it is never too late for the redemption of both Parliament and the public broadcaster.

Transparent process of appointing Public Protector

After then public protector Thuli Madonsela’s term ended in October, Parliament had to find a replacement and the process to do so began months before the local government elections.

South Africans wanted to see who would fill Madonsela’s shoes and how that replacement would be appointed. In one of those rare moments, Parliament adopted a democratic, open, transparent and inclusive process, where even NGOs were allowed to probe candidates behind the scenes and the information they gathered was considered by the committee.

Makhosi Khoza

It may have been pure coincidence, but the two processes outlined above featured a particular MP who stood out above all others: Doctor Makhosi Khoza of the ANC.

She is a force. She speaks truth to power and she presents herself as nobody’s lackey.

Khoza was brilliant as the chairperson of the ad hoc committee that recruited candidates for the new Public Protector, with even opposition MPs registering their approval of her leadership in the process. She excelled this week in interviewing witnesses during the SABC inquiry and did not mince her words when probing a senior comrade in the form of Communications Minister Faith Muthambi. In an ANC caucus, where the default position is to defend the executive at all costs, may Khoza’s star continue to shine even brighter.

Jackson Mthembu

Jackson Mthembu deserves a gold star.

He was appointed ANC chief whip at a heated meeting of the ANC’s national executive committee in April.

Unlike his predecessor, Stone Sizani – who was painfully media shy – Mthembu is affable and outspoken. While he was hugely embarrassed by the failure to pass the Division of Revenue Amendment Bill, owing to lack of quorum, and the struggle to maintain discipline in the caucus continues, Mthembu has been making all the right noises. His counterparts in the opposition have publicly acknowledged his inclusive approach in the whips’ forum and how this makes it easier for different parties to work together in Parliament.

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