Tue, 29 Sep 2020

Has the virtual Parliament done its job?

06 Aug 2020, 16:10 GMT+10

In fact, it probably increased accessibility for the public, as much more of Parliament's work was streamed online on the easily accessible social media platforms YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Parliament's media team also deserves a word of thanks for ensuring that the Fourth Estate was plugged into the virtual Parliament.

Passing legislation

The pandemic put a halt to what will probably be the most notable piece of legislation that was expected to come out of Parliament this year: the amendment to Section 25 of the Constitution to allow for land expropriation without compensation.

The committee drafting the amendment couldn't complete its nationwide public participation process before the country went into lockdown.


It had a deadline of 29 May, and the committee was allowed to lapse when it failed to meet this deadline. However, to opposition parties' surprise the ANC insisted on the committee's re-establishment, and with the support of the EFF and some smaller parties passed such a motion in the National Assembly.

The deadline is 31 December, but don't be surprised if it is extended.

Parliament's main legislative task this past term was passing the budget, the pandemic and the subsequent urgency to pass an adjusted budget to respond to the pandemic. Parliament made what appears to be sensible adjustments to how it usually handles this process.

OPINION | Covid-19 and the opposition: It's a game of politics

It meant, though, that departments delivered legislatively required presentations to committees about plans and budgets they knew were going to change.

When this tedious process was done, committees heard about the effect budget cuts would have on the departments. Be that as it may, the budget and the special adjusted budget were passed, and Parliament did its job.

Executive oversight

By its nature, it is in opposition parties' interest to conduct stringent oversight.

The catch is when it has a sizeable majority, proper oversight over the executive doesn't happen without the governing party playing ball.

READ HERE | MPs need to ask 'unpleasant, sharp' questions of the executive - Speaker Thandi Modise

It's just too easy to flex your majoritarian muscle and scupper the opposition's attempts to do their job.

Just recall how Parliament dealt with Nkandla, to name but one instance. While the situation has improved after the March 2016 Constitutional Court ruling on Nkandla, which embarrassed several ANC MPs, and the party's poor showing in the municipal elections later that year, the ANC still treats oversight at best as an afterthought, and at worse by actively shielding the executive or defer to ministerial diktat.

Its own internal Machiavellian machinations are often the determining factor. However, there were some wins for oversight during this past term, for instance:

The Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), who is inquiring into one of the first instances of emergency procurement, the fence at the Beitbridge border post and who launched a full-scale investigation into the many years of maladministration and just plain old looting at the Department of Water Affairs. This committee is chaired by the IFP's Mkhuleko Hlengwa.The Portfolio Committee on Communications asserting its authority after Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams' flagrant attempt to tell Parliament what to do with regards to the appointment process of the Icasa council.The Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry finally insisting the National Lotteries Commission (NLC) release its beneficiaries lists, after months of frustrating DA MP Mat Cuthbert's attempts to obtain the lists and hold the NLC accountable.The Portfolio Committee on Health kept a close eye on the pandemic, which included oversight visits, and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize often answered MP's questions, whether in committees, sittings of the National Assembly or National Council of Provinces or in writing.

While the wins are nothing to be scoffed at, when everything is considered, Parliament's oversight wasn't what it should be. And one can't blame it on the way Parliament had to function during the past term.

You can't mute the Constitution.

The general trend from the ANC, amid much waffling about the "new normal" and lobbing sweetheart questions at the executive, was to close ranks and complain about political point-scoring when opposition MPs asked tough questions.

READ | EFF MPs in trouble for vote in Parliament: 'Our members usually don't know what they are fighting for'

Of course, there was a lot of political grandstanding, particularly from the DA and EFF, but that doesn't negate Parliament's constitutional duty to exercise oversight.

An extreme example of this was, soon after Parliament resumed, when the ANC contingent on the Joint Standing Committee on Defence appeared more concerned about interim DA leader John Steenhuisen tweeting President Cyril Ramaphosa's letter informing Parliament of the SANDF's deployment - a public document - than the allegations of brutality levelled at the soldiers.

Another example would be the Portfolio Committee on Police, where the DA's and FF Plus' concerns over the appointment of the executive director of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) was dismissed by ANC MPs through accusations that they did not support women's emancipation, were not honest, and didn't want an IPID head so that a forceful eviction in Cape Town - in which a naked man was removed from his residence - would not be investigated properly.


They also accused them of being spokespersons for Corruption Watch and the Helen Suzman Foundation. It appeared clear that the ANC MPs on the committee were ready to rubber stamp Police Minister Cele's nomination for IPID head.

This committee also allowed Cele to be in breach of the IPID Act since March, when on two occasions it extended the deadline to nominate the new IPID head.

OPINION | Covid-19 crisis: The choice is to oppose or resist

A legal opinion it obtained after the fact said it didn't have the power to do that. It does appear that this was a watershed for this particular committee, that has since resolved to amend the IPID Act to strengthen its hand in the appointment of the IPID head versus that of the minister.

The committee also wants Cele to explain why he didn't meet the deadline, and it took exception at the little time allowed for them to interrogate the annual crime statistics and reminded Cele of their duty to exercise oversight.

National Coronavirus Command Council

Little of what we know about the NCCC's functioning was brought to light in Parliament. Most of what we know has been revealed in court papers.

ANALYSIS | Parliamentary oversight: Stella cut down to size, but 'unlawful' Cele looms large

Ramaphosa responded very briefly to written questions on the NCCC, while a key minister in the state of disaster, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, responded to a string of written questions by claiming she doesn't have the information available.

This is odd since she managed to find the information when she had to file court papers. While Parliament doesn't have the right to amend the lockdown regulations, it surely could have done more to interrogate the ministers responsible for it and the NCCC's motivations and reasoning, which could conceivably have helped to iron out some of the inconsistencies in the regulations.

It appears that ANC MPs were happy to leave this to Cabinet and then defend the ministers' actions.

This highlights the need for an oversight committee over the Presidency - something the DA has called for repeatedly over the years. Perhaps such a committee should be chaired by an opposition MP, as is the case with Scopa, to safeguard the committee against a chorus of imbongis or being used in the governing party's internal battles.

A more short-term solution could be the EFF's suggestion for an ad hoc committee to oversee all Covid-19-related expenditure. But a similar suggestion by the DA was shot down earlier in the lockdown.

Meanwhile, the allegations of Covid-19-related looting mounts. While the ANC caucus expressed its disgust about this, it is ultimately up to them to turn the situation around in terms of oversight when Parliament resumes in two weeks' time.

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