Democracy in the Balance: Parliament’s Window of Opportunity

Image: Flickr, Matt Kieffer
Image: Flickr, Matt Kieffer

Current debate on the relationship between the executive and legislature may help the South African Parliament to define itself as a genuine ‘people’s parliament’ in the eyes of the public, says TIM HUGHES, team leader of the South African Institute for International Affairs’ Programme for Parliamentary Democracy in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Region.

There is presently some concern  that the South African parliament’s role is being reduced to that of a democratic fig leaf, masking the concentration of power in the executive branch. Deeper concern suggests that the institution has become irrelevant to the daily lives of ordinary people.

The recent critiques of parliament’s diminishing powers by the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Democratic Alliance (DA) undoubtedly have a tactical dimension to them, but their concern about the over-concentration of power in the Presidency at the expense of the popularly elected institution of parliament is genuine. The motivations for their critiques differ in significant respects, however. For the DA, the critique is animated, in part, by the classic liberal desire to limit political power and the abuse thereof. The SACP’s critique is an expression of frustration that the interests of the under-classes, the marginalised, the impoverished and the voiceless are being ignored in the hallowed chambers.

Both parties clearly have a point and their assertions demand far more consideration by members of parliament (MPs). What are they doing to redress this power imbalance?

In most democracies, where power is relational, an oscillating power-dynamic exists between the branches of government. The peculiarity of the South African context is that, since 1999, power has shifted measurably towards the executive branch and away from the legislature with little sign of  counterbalance. This disguises the fact, though, that while the ANC has a 70 per cent parliamentary majority, some 75 of its MPs are reportedly members of the SACP and dozens are, or have been, COSATU members. Thus many ANC MPs are likely to be sympathetic to the viewpoint that parliament is becoming marginalised. Add to this the DA’s 56 MPs together with other opposition MPs and it can be deduced that up to one third of MPs may share concerns about the marginalisation of parliament.

Operationally the dice are also loaded against parliament. By definition the relationship of the executive to the legislature is one of professional to amateur. Parliament is always at a technical disadvantage to the executive branch, with the latter enjoying a phalanx of departmental career technocrats at its disposal to formulate policy and to draft legislation. Parliament has sought to redress this imbalance through MP training, skills development and an increased allocation to research services. Yet, disappointingly, the research budget for committees has remained under-spent to date. Furthermore, Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka recently expressed what many have long felt, that the current crop of MPs is not up to the standard of the class of ’94. This is profoundly worrying. Our MPs ought to be increasingly skilled, assertive, responsive and accountable. Instead we have witnessed a haemorrhaging of talent out of parliament, either to business, or through promotion to higher office. Parliament is simply not attracting and retaining the best in our society and our democracy is suffering.

The deeper concerns regarding parliament’s irrelevance hinge, in part, on the chasm between the South African electorate and their public representatives. These are chosen via the party list proportional representation electoral system, which tends to elevate party loyalty and discipline above all other capabilities and talents. MPs compete in the first instance for party and collegial approval, rather than for that of the electorate. This breeds and rewards party obeisance and sycophancy. Because MPs are allocated to their constituencies, this relationship remains discretionary and arbitrary. And although MPs are required to report back to their parties on their constituency work, this obligation is a political light year away from a direct and accountable relationship.

A more difficult way to evaluate the health of parliament is to measure the degree to which MPs exemplify values and behaviour expected of public representatives. South Africans may share little ideological common ground, nor agreement over policy, but there is generally more consensus, regardless of party political affiliation, about the values MPs are expected to demonstrate, namely, honesty, integrity, dedication, professionalism and commitment to public service. It may be misleading and inaccurate to impute general deviance from these core values from the indiscretions of a minority, nevertheless, the unethical behaviour, opportunistic floor-crossing, and the downright illegal acts of some high profile MPs have undermined overall public trust in parliament. Additionally, parliament’s internal handling of high-profile cases by its ethics committee has further undermined the public confidence in parliament. The slowness in dealing with ‘Travelgate’ is one such example.

Thus a profound question needs to be asked of all MPs. Do they intend to act with greater independence on matters of conscience, policy and practice than they have hitherto? After all, the constitution endows parliament with considerable powers of oversight and the capacity to hold the executive to account. Yet the instances in which the legislature has exercised such powers don’t spring quickly to mind. The ruling party’s 70 per cent majority in parliament leaves it nominally immune from opposition pressure and unassailable on any voting decision. The overarching discipline reinforced by the electoral system further discourages independent thinking and, in turn, diminishes the prospect and practice of majority party executive oversight. More technically, but no less potently, the total dominance of ANC MPs as Portfolio Committee chairs, with the exception of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA), further re-enforces party discipline and diminishes robust and assertive oversight. In the only significant attempt by a committee to exercise its full powers of oversight during the arms deal hearings, SCOPA and indeed parliament, were permanently damaged by the victory of the executive and the subsequent capitulation by the legislature.

Although South Africa’s democratic parliament looks and feels like an open and welcoming institution –  particularly as compared to its previous incarnations – can we really talk about it as a ‘people’s parliament’? In broad terms, the concept of a ‘people’s parliament’ conveys the idea of a place in which all the country’s people feel they are fully represented, as well as a place in which their most important political, economic, social and cultural interests are protected and promoted. But there is a vast difference between people visiting parliament as part of a public relations tour and their engaging with parliament as part of the deliberative process. Whilst the South African public is now encouraged to visit parliament and is provided with an array of helpful information in all eleven official languages, engagement with parliament at the committee and public hearing level is overwhelmingly still via experts or lobby groups. These constitute a set of insider groups that have the resources to engage with and influence parliament and indeed are often sought out by Committees to provide expert input on policy, or to draft legislation. Yet even here, there is evidence of lobbyists and organised interests increasingly by-passing parliament, in favour of the direct route to Pretoria.

All is not lost, however. The recent robust discourse about the relationship between the executive and legislature comes at a time when a narrow window of opportunity is opening for parliament. During the remainder of the third parliament, it has the rare opportunity, not only to be a King- or Queen-maker, but also of to claw back a degree of power to itself. For the sake of democracy in South Africa, it must not fail.