First Term Review of Parliament (26 January to 19 March 2021)
The first term of Parliament officially ended on 19 March and MPs are on recess until 4 May 2021. However, it will still be busy for some MPs as a number of committees will still be meeting during this constituency period.
The major highlights for the eight week term include: the State of the Nation Address (SONA) and the subsequent debates; delivery of the 2021 Budget Speech and its processing; voting on the Public Protector matter; mini-plenaries on various issues of national importance to mention a few.
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the 2021 SONA on 11 February. Owing to COVID-19 lockdown regulations, the typical pomp and fanfare was dispensed with this year. The event saw no more than 50 Members of Parliament, representatives from the Judiciary and the Executive in the chamber while everyone else connected virtually.
The subsequent debates were typically robust, with the President facing some tough questions from the opposition benches in Parliament. Most of the parties were critical of the Executive’s proposals to address economic challenges, the rising unemployment rate and COVID-19, and they put forward own reform agendas as an alternative to the President’s speech.
Almost a fortnight after SONA, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, presented the 2021 Budget Speech on 24 February.
Minister Mboweni announced that an allocation of more than R10 billion had been set aside in the budget for the purchase and delivery of vaccines over the next two years.
The budget presented by the Minister is not the final budget but a proposal that has to be scrutinised and approved by Parliament over the next few months.
Whether it's in the main chambers or the committee corridor, the ramifications of COVID-19 are seldom far away.
Typically, committee meetings commence in late January but the Health Committee got an early start with three meetings before mid-January, and all dealing with the pandemic.
During the term, there were a number of coronavirus-related committee hearings scheduled too. Members were kept apprised about the state of preparedness for the third wave, the validity of COVID-related data, vaccine rollout, among other issues. PMG has consolidated reports on the COVID-19 related meetings here.
Both houses were pandemic-focused with the National Assembly holding an urgent debate on the rollout of a Covid-19 vaccination plan for South Africa on 23 February. The debate was sponsored by the Chief Whip of the Opposition. Meanwhile, the NCOP arranged a Ministerial Briefing Session on the Vaccine Rollout Strategy and Vaccine Acquisition Plan on 25 February. During these sittings, a significant number of questions were posed by MPs relating to government’s COVID-19 pandemic response.
Public Protector Matter
Three days before MPs went on recess, Parliament voted on a motion on whether or not to proceed with the process of impeaching Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. During the National Assembly sitting, 275 MPs voted in support of the motion and 40 members objected.
The Chief Whip of the DA submitted a motion to the Speaker in 2020 for the initiation of proceedings. An independent panel, which was appointed to conduct and finalise a preliminary assessment, found substantial prima facie evidence of incompetence and misconduct – and recommended Parliament initiate an inquiry into Adv Mkhwebane's fitness to hold office.
Parliament will now establish an ad hoc committee comprising different parties to undertake a formal inquiry and look into the Public Protector’s fitness.
Written and Oral Questions
Written questions are a critical oversight mechanism available to MPs to hold members of the Executive to account.
A total of 1189 were sent to the Executive by Members. Of the tally, 1009 were posed by National Assembly MPs and 475 replies were received.
During a National Assembly Programming Committee meeting held towards the end of the term, opposition MPs expressed concern about the non-responsiveness as well as late submission of written replies by Ministers. It was pointed out that a handful of Ministers seemed to be always late in providing their written responses. MPs also observed that even when government departments do provide input, they use semantics to avoid answering questions.
Previously, the Fifth Parliament had agreed to establish a subcommittee to address failure by the Executive to reply to questions. The mechanism envisaged was to be chaired by the Deputy Speaker to hold Ministers to account. However, the matter was never scheduled for consideration by the House at that time. With MPs calling for the revival of this proposal, it is still to be seen how soon the subcommittee is established so that the Sixth Parliament fully exercises its authority and ability of recourse.
As per the norm, Oral Questions and Answer sessions were held in both chambers during the term. Deputy President David Mabuza, as leader of government business, appeared twice before Parliament to reply to questions. On 17 March, before the National Assembly, he indicated some cabinet ministers have expressed “disquiet” about how they are treated by parliamentary committees, complaining that “abruptly scheduled” oversight meetings disrupt their cabinet duties. This was after MPs had pointed out to him that at least 172 written question went unanswered by Ministers in 2020.
The National Assembly also approved a report of the Rules Committee limiting the Deputy President’s appearance before the House to at least once per quarter, instead of monthly. This was an important and significant development during this term.
Plenary Sessions represent the culmination of the legislative and oversight work done in committee corridors. During this term, in addition to the headline sittings, eight mini-plenaries were held by the National Assembly. These serve as breakaway sessions of the NA and provide an opportunity for the House to debate particular topics and proceed with business irrespective of the number of Members present. Issues discussed ranged from service delivery, perceived failures within SA’s education system, to the handling of the pandemic by government.
On the legislative front, a total of 41 Bills (including the draft Constitution Eighteenth Amendment Bill and the Expropriation Bill) are under consideration by parliamentary committees. Five were passed by Parliament and 10 were signed and assented to by the President (the total includes seven assented to in early January before Parliament officially opened for the year).
Some of the seven bills introduced this term are: the Appropriation and Special Appropriation Bills; Ease of Doing Business Bill and the Railway Safety Bill. They will resume their path through Parliament next term.
The Expropriation Bill is one of the pieces of legislation to be used in the land reform programme that is before Parliament. It is aimed at giving the government powers to expropriate property in the public interest or for a public purpose. The Bill, once finalised, will be used in tandem with other land reform bills after being passed by Parliament, including amendments to Section 25 of the Constitution, to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation.
Of late, delays in the assenting of Bills by the President have been a subject of much concern from both Parliament and civil society. During a recently held National Assembly Programming Committee, MPs raised their misgivings about the time the President takes to assent Bills. Commitments were subsequently made by the Office of the Speaker to engage the Executive in an effort to come up with an agreeable framework to ensure there are no unnecessary delays in legislative processes, as currently there are no stipulations as to what constitutes a reasonable time for Bills to be assented to.
In the virtual committee corridors, a fair amount of work was done during this term. 361 meetings were held, a bulk of them on the National Assembly side (the total includes five held early January before Parliament officially opened for the year).
Notably, an uptick in ministerial attendance has been observed. Compared to the previous, Ministers and their deputies attended 13 more committee meetings this term. This could be attributed to the introduction of virtual platforms which has meant that large ministerial and departmental contingents no longer need to travel physically to the parliamentary precinct to account before committees.
The filling of seven Board vacancies at the National Youth Development Agency has been an unending saga but the process is finally underway once again. The Sub-Committee of the Portfolio Committee on Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities and the Select Committee on Health and Social Services is currently inviting applications and nominations for suitable candidates to serve on the Board.
The Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA) met 16 times, and has been at the forefront of tackling wayward SOEs and departments. The Committee has been focused on deviations, expansions, investigations and performance at various entities. This included engagements with the following entities: PRASA, TRANSNET, ESKOM and DPWI.
Regrettably, Parliament mourned the deaths of two MPs during the course of this term. Two also resigned and new Members were sworn-in as replacements.
Some of the key numbers and activities are unpacked on the infographic below:
About this blog
"That week in Parliament" is a series of blog posts in which the important Parliamentary events of the week are discussed.