Review of Parliament 2017
This Fifth Parliament continues to break new ground.
2017 was a bumper year of parliamentary business, court battles, internal squabbles, jousting, brinkmanship, attempts to remove the President from office, dissolve Parliament and parliamentary inquiries.
With the year done and dusted, we review some of the legislature’s activities, highlights and controversies from this period.
Parliament passed 18 Bills this year – this matches up with the legislative output from last year.
There are currently 41 Bills in the highways and byways of both Houses. This means Parliament faces a large legislative workload next year. Last year it was left with 27 Bills at the end of the year and 24 in 2015. Amongst others, this includes the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Bill, Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill, Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill, Critical Infrastructure Protection Bill, Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Amendment Bill, Traditional Courts Bill and a trio of labour bills - Labour Relations Amendment Bill, Basic Conditions of Employment Amendment Bill and the National Minimum Wage Bill.
These unfinished Bills will resume in the New Year and it is anticipated that a number of them will be finalised in the first term.
There was a significant legislative milestone this year: the first Private Members’ Bill - the Labour Laws Amendment Bill – was passed by the National Assembly. This comes five years after the Constitutional Court ruled that individual MPs have the right to initiate legislation.
Parliament has built its capacity to initiate and develop legislation. Committee Bills were normally a rarity but this year has been an exception. Two Committees introduced legislation – both historic and with potentially huge implications – and a few others have sought permission to make amendments to specific legislation. The Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry developed the National Credit Amendment Bill that will help vulnerable people who are over-indebted. Meanwhile the Ad Hoc Committee on Political Party Funding worked at breathtaking speed to produce a Bill providing sunlight when it comes to money and politics. That Committee also worked hard to ensure public participation was central to each stage of its work. This newfound display of activism is a positive development.
Disappointingly, the Standing Committee on Finance was unable complete its review of the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act. The Committee is supposed to look into the timeframes and sequencing associated with the different financial instruments and Bills, and the parliamentary procedures related to them. Every year, legislators complain during the budget process that the timeframes are very short and that there is no time to make budget amendment proposals.
The introduction of several new Bills next year is expected to spark debate and their passage is likely to be fraught. These include the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill and International Crimes Bill to name a few.
The High Level Parliamentary Panel published its Report that assesses the impact of key legislation in accelerating change and transformation. It contains important recommendations, amongst others, on electoral and land reform. Sceptics say this Report does not say anything new and will gather dust like other parliamentary reports. Others commend the legislature for the groundbreaking work and will be pushing to get these recommendations implemented.
The selection of a new SABC Board (interim and later a permanent) was one of the major stories of the year. A parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee found that the previous board was unable to discharge its fiduciary responsibilities and dissolved it. The Communications Committee received a total of 363 nominations.
It took Parliament almost a year to finalise the appointment of the new National Youth Development Agency (NYDA). The process had to be restarted several times and was mired in controversy. The appointment processes for the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) and Commission for Gender Equality were less drawn out.
A greater emphasis was placed on verifying qualifications and security checks of candidates.
In line with the benchmark set in 2016, there was greater public involvement in these statutory appointments.
Litigation involving Parliament showed no sign of abating in 2017. Political parties approached the courts for recourse on multiple occasions. Three cases stood out:
The UDM asked the Constitutional Court to make a ruling after the Speaker of the National Assembly said she has no powers to grant the secret ballot in motions of no confidence. The court directed that she indeed has the constitutional power to determine if motions of no confidence should be conducted by way of a secret ballot. Perhaps the most profound and consequential paragraph can be found in this judgement, which asserts that MPs must consider the broader interests of society above their party loyalties.
The North Gauteng High Court set aside the Public Protector’s Report which ordered Parliament to amend section 224 of the Constitution and, thereby, encroached on the exclusive authority of the legislature.
The EFF went to the Western Cape High Court to challenge a 2014 incident which saw them suspended after chaos in the National Assembly. It is seeking an order declaring that the decision taken by the National Assembly on 27 November 2014, to adopt a Report recommending the suspension of the EFF MPs without pay, is constitutionally invalid and unlawful.
Oversight and Attendance
Members of the Executive, including the President and the Deputy President, availed themselves routinely to answer Oral Questions in both the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces.
That said, the poor attendance by the Executive (both in the main chambers and Committees), was raised persistently throughout the year. More than ever, there were calls to subpoena absent Ministers. During an oral question session, the Leader of Government Business asserted that those who miss scheduled meetings without reasonable explanation can be sanctioned by Parliament.
Also receiving attention of Parliament is the promptness of replies and the quality of answers provided by the Executive to the questions of Members. In response to the growing outcry, Parliament established a Subcommittee to Monitor Executive Responses to Unanswered Questions. Each quarter this Subcommittee would engage the relevant Ministers on the reasons for the questions being unanswered. The Subcommittee would report its findings to the Rules Committee and any recommendations to address identified concerns. These would be reported to the National Assembly which could lead to censure of a Minister. The ANC Chief Whip, Jackson Mthembu, commented that it will be the first time that Parliament creates a committee to be a watchdog over Ministers who do not play their part, which is an achievement.
The best attended Committees according to PMG data are: PC Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, SC Security and Constitutional Development, PC International Relations and PC Sports and Recreation. See link https://pmg.org.za/attendance-overview
Committees, Plenary Sittings and Presiding Officers
Whilst overshadowed, Committees remain a vital platform where the real work of Parliament takes place. They provide lawmakers a unique opportunity to hear directly from experts, organisations and individuals who are interested in or affected by a particular issue. It also affords them more time to fully examine a topic and they are not held back by the constraints affecting plenary sittings.
More than 1 400 Committee meetings were held this year. Committees dealt with pressing challenges, including food security, municipal debt, climate change, health care services for the mentally ill, commercialisation of religion and abuse of religious beliefs to name a few.
The Select Committee on Petitions and Executive Undertakings went about its work unnoticed and made substantial progress in considering petitions from members of the public. The Committee was also given the mandate to oversee Executive Undertakings at the start of the Fifth Parliament and began doing so for the first time this year. Several Ministers appeared to account for promises made in Parliament in previous years. The lack of follow–up is always cited as a weakness of the legislature and this is one attempt to address this.
The term state capture has been part of our lexicon for the past 24 months and escalated after the Gupta Leaks which implicated several Ministers. After a period of inaction, the Chairperson of Committees, Cedric Frolick, eventually directed four Committees to "urgently probe" allegations of state capture involving Cabinet Ministers. Watching the Public Enterprises Committee go about its work has been an eye-opening experience. The inquisitorial process allows for scrutiny that is rare in Parliament. The inquiry has been punctuated by explosive revelations, fiery exchanges and laid bare the extent of the rot facing Eskom. It has also shown that party political differences can be set aside, has done much to bolster public confidence in Parliament and proves that legislators do more than hurl insults in the House. The inquiry will continue from 23 January 2018. The other three Committees have made slow work with their inquiries.
Other Committees are also flexing their muscles and using their wide range of powers. The Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry resolved to conduct an inquiry into compliance with localisation and the local public procurement policy of Transnet. The Standing Committee on Finance has done tremendous work on transformation of the financial sector and illicit financial flows. The Standing Committee on Appropriations has, for the first time, adopted a "risk statement" that identifies government programmes that provide critical services to the public, but which display planning and implementation weaknesses. According to Parliament, this “investigative prowess is still at its infancy stages, and with a clear political will this will grow from strength to strength alongside the maturing of our constitutional democracy”.
Parliament's Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA) is determined to clamp down on irregular, wasteful and fruitless expenditure at government institutions. The Committee is using the Hawks to go after culprits and the crime busting organisation has been part of the Committee’s hearings this year. The Committee is looking to involve the NPA to also be part of its meetings next year.
SCOPA, with the Social Development Committee, led the charge and had running battles with Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini and the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) about the Agency’s progress in finding a new distributor of social grants for the more than 17 million beneficiaries.
2017 was a trying year for South Africa and many important matters were discussed in both chambers in the form of a motion, debate, or statement. These included state capture, the relationship between Parliament and the Executive, the economy and jobs, land, living conditions of farm workers and nationalisation of banks.
The eighth motion of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma was a melodrama filled with tension and intrigue. Delays, court battles, secret ballot, party-infighting were all part of the plot line. Despite all the talk of a possible uprising and a mini-revolt, the President survived another day but it was a close call – the motion was defeated by only 21 votes (198 MPs supported, 179 against and 9 abstentions).
For the first time ever, a motion to dissolve Parliament was debated. As part of its call for early elections, the DA motivated that the country could not afford another two years of the African National Congress government or the Gupta family's influence over President Jacob Zuma. The motion failed, with only 83 MPs supporting while 229 voted against the motion.
The Speaker and other presiding officers had a difficult task chairing plenary sessions. Many sittings were a battlefield where decorum was disregarded and unruliness reigned. Spurious points of order, name-calling, vulgar hand gestures and walkouts were the order of the day and tested even the most unflappable. The ‘white shirts’ (part of the parliamentary protection services) were still a feature – albeit in a limited role this year. Parliament's presiding officers and their rulings routinely raised the ire of opposition parties who claim that they were biased, inconsistent and shielded the Executive. They were also kept busy deciding what unparliamentary language is.
Labour relations improved and the staff did not embark on any industrial strike. In large part this had to do with the Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana being placed on special leave in June and the deal struck with NEHAWU to increase employees' salaries by 7.5% for the 2017/18 financial year.
There were new faces in Parliament following redeployments, several resignations and deaths. In addition, parties shuffled their Members around resulting in several MPs having to get used to new portfolios. The Joint Rules Committee has approved new procedures and enhanced institutional steps including a draft Public Participation Model for Parliament, which was first initiated in the Fourth Parliament. (Read PMG Research about Public Participation).
Parliament is doing an in-depth feasibility study about the establishment of a “Single Human Rights Body” and asked the public to submit their views. Parliament-watchers were caught off-guard as this topic, which has been dormant for so many years, was suddenly resurrected.
Parliament celebrated two big events this year: the 20th anniversary of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) and the 20th anniversary of SA’s first democratic Constitution.
Parliament has released its First Term 2018 programme. With no shortage of big issues to talk about and 2018 being a pre-election year – expect plenty of noise, surprises, interesting manoeuvres and unbelievable moments (this has been an unpredictable Parliament). This Fifth Parliament is well and truly in the final stretch so there will be pressure to fast track legislation and a push to cement its legacy.
About this blog
"That week in Parliament" is a series of blog posts in which the important Parliamentary events of the week are discussed.