Only a prestigious Parliament can beat SA's many crises

Mosebenzi Zwane. (Gallo Images)
Mosebenzi Zwane. (Gallo Images)

Unemployment, corruption, poor service delivery, poverty and many other national crises must be confronted by a prestigious Parliament, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

The selection of controversial former ministers to head parliamentary committees once again raises questions about the constitutional requirements for being a member of Parliament.

Our constitutional design is such that once you are elected member of Parliament you qualify for a number of positions, including appointment to Cabinet by the president.

You are eligible to stand for election as president of the republic. You could be the speaker of the National Assembly or a chairperson of a parliamentary committee, a key parliamentary institution that enforces accountability on the part of the executive.  

The public uproar following the selection of Gupta-linked former ministers Mosebenzi Zwane and others associated with various misdemeanors in their previous Cabinet portfolios only serves to provide colour to public debate. It doesn't change the fact that nothing in the Constitution prevents Zwane or Faith Muthambi from being elected to higher positions.

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Only their political party, the ANC, out of its own volition as a governing party can prevent them. But the party's integrity committee has failed to stamp its authority. So, the ANC is free to field such members of Parliament to positions of authority.

This, however, does not take away the fact that society is generally concerned about the low moral threshold to which Parliament, by virtue of being run by such characters, is now subject. (Some might say Parliament has been the face of a low threshold in public morality for a long time.)

Parliament, according to the Constitution is the representative of the people. Zwane and Muthambi are, by implication, the best the ANC can put forward to represent the people in two key decision-making processes of which parliamentary committees are central: making laws and holding the executive to account.

But we know they are not the best to represent South Africans. Nor are they the best in the ANC itself. Given their controversial past, they still have to account at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture and hopefully other criminal tribunals.

This denigration of Parliament through such appointments requires sober reflection among all leaders of political parties if we are to avoid the risk of delegitimising Parliament even after a free and fair election. All political parties must put their differences aside and initiate a frank debate about the requirements for being a member of Parliament, the chair of a portfolio committee, the speaker of the National Assembly, deputy president and president of the republic. The requirements must not be the same.

The drafters of the Constitution would not have imagined that people who are willing to aid treason would be eligible to sit in Parliament and, like all MPs including the good ones, theoretically have a good chance of being elevated to even higher positions.

If the public uproar is to have any substantive effect and assuming that all leaders of political parties, including the ANC, are listening, qualification criteria for different positions would be developed and institutionalised. This would greatly benefit the Cabinet, a derivative of Parliament.

The selection of MPs of questionable background to head portfolio committees will have a negative impact on oversight and law making. Here are some likely scenarios.

There is a possibility ministers and senior government bureaucrats might correctly resist being judged by a portfolio committee headed by an MP who was utterly incompetent when he or she had the privilege to serve in Cabinet in the past. Many civil servants were traumatised by state capture perpetrated by some of the promoted MPs.

But knowing their own historical sins, the situation could lead to another possibility. Some of the controversial former ministers who chair committees might try to ingratiate themselves to Cabinet members and other government officials to be seen to be supportive of the "new dawn".

The worst-case scenario is one where the former ministers become completely hostile to the new Cabinet members and to President Cyril Ramaphosa. In such a situation, they would become an opposition faction within the ANC.

Regardless of which scenario turns out to be true, the appointment of questionable people in such critical positions does not augur well for balanced, robust and critical oversight that guarantees service delivery and high ethical standards.

It is also likely that committees headed by questionable characters could become sites for battles between ANC members and opposition MPs. The latter will be more emboldened than ever before because of their net increase in membership after the ANC's electoral decline.

Much-needed constructive oversight on the executive could be the casualty, especially if the opposition itself is also fractured, as their antagonistic ideological posturing seems to suggest. South Africa cannot afford a systemically fractured and an ethically challenged Parliament.

Unemployment, corruption, poor service delivery, poverty and many other national crises must be confronted by a prestigious Parliament. Not one with a reputation for senseless spectacle.

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

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