“Small parties” in Parliament
Our current electoral model of proportional representation (PR) is designed specifically to create space for a multi-party constitutional democracy.
The three-largest parties (ANC, DA & EFF) occupy 90% of the National Assembly seats. The remaining 10% of the seats are held by 11 parties.
*Number of parties represented in the National Assembly after each election.
“Small parties” with diverse and often differing views bring not only a plethora of perspectives through plenary sessions and debates in the Houses, but most importantly also bring the views of their respective constituents before the national legislative discourse. Additionally, smaller parties continue to make meaningful contributions in committee meetings which are the “engines of Parliament” where all the oversight and legislative heavy lifting is done.
Notably, the only two Private Member’s Bills passed by Parliament since the dawn of democracy were introduced by MPs from “small parties”. History was made in Parliament in November 2017, when the Labour Laws Amendment Bill, proposed by former ACDP MP, Ms Cheryllyn Dudley, was passed by Parliament. Three years later, in July 2020, a second, the Civil Union Amendment Bill introduced by former COPE MP, Ms Deidre Carter, was passed.
They often punch above their weight.
Notwithstanding this, they face challenges in trying to carry out their mandates: inadequate speaking time, having to focus their energies on a few portfolios, and inadequate capacity and funding.
We chatted to three smaller parties- IFP, GOOD and Al Jamah-Ah, about their experiences in Parliament and the kind of support they need:
1. What are the challenges that small political parties experience in Parliament?
GOOD: Insufficient resources for research to assist the small number of members who are required to address several matters across various portfolios.
IFP: Firstly, I don’t subscribe to the notion that the IFP is a small party. We are the fourth-largest party in South Africa; the third-largest opposition party and we control 29 municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal.
But yes, it is true that we have significantly fewer Members of Parliament than the ruling party, and therefore parties such as the IFP find themselves stretched very thinly when it comes to Portfolios. Most of our MPs cover two, sometimes three different Portfolios. Not only does this increase each Member’s workload, but on a more practical level, a person cannot be in two places at once, and Members are at times forced to choose between various commitments.
AL JAMAH-AH: The 3-minutes speaking time is not enough to engage the party’s views to Parliament. Smaller parties get more opportunities to pose questions to the President and Deputy President. As it stands, the rotating list of questions to them is not fair.
2. Is it feasible for smaller political parties to possibly work together in the legislature to intensify the crescendo of their voices to have an impact in Parliament (this question assumes that they currently do not)?
GOOD: It is possible where you have common values, policies and solutions. This is fairly rare given that parties are elected with different electoral mandates.
IFP: Opposition parties do work together on issues of mutual interest. An example of such would be the work that we as opposition MPs do on the Portfolio Committee for Social Development, where we often work together to drive issues of critical importance.
AL JAMAH-AH: Yes, it would be feasible, but in the SA Parliamentary scenario not always practical as smaller parties have their differences on various matters. However, this does not wipe out the feasibility of working together on matters on which smaller parties would agree.
3. How best can small parties utilize the national legislature to shine a light on the work done within constituencies as part of constituency work?
GOOD: Smaller parties should make concerted efforts to address constituency issues through questions to the Executive, statements and motions in the two Houses. Concerns should also be directed to Ministers' offices, for constituency-related matters. Interventions with local councillors should also be collectively coordinated.
IFP: There are multiple opportunities to bring issues from our constituencies back to Parliament, among others, to raise issues during both weekly written questions, and oral questions to the various Ministers, as well as the Deputy President and President. We are also able to take issues directly to our Portfolio Committees for consideration. Constituency issues can also be raised during members’ statements and debates, even urgent debates.
AL JAMAH-AH: a). To engage with Ministers on the needs within Constituencies where oversight was done, through written and oral questions b). Get Ministers’ intervention in departments to speed up on delivery of projects such as creating employment c). Request Ministerial intervention on municipal service delivery failures which were observed during oversights d). Submit Personal Members’ Bills on matters arising from oversight visits.
4. What more can Parliament do to support smaller parties?
GOOD: Access to resources - financial or human - to support the research function so that MPs in parties with smaller caucuses can properly represent their constituencies on the broad range of issues that arise in Parliament.
IFP: Careful attention must be paid to the programme and schedule of Parliament; particularly when making last-minute changes and additions; it presents a challenge for smaller parties with fewer Members and fewer human resources.
There are also examples in Germany, for example where their MPs are each capacitated with a researcher and a PA.
MPs currently have no such support or share such support with many other MPs. Resources are also key in capacitating and supporting MPs.
AL JAMAH-AH: a). To give cognizance to matters raised both in committees and the two Houses b). More speaking time be afforded to smaller parties during plenary sessions c). More opportunities to raise oral questions to the President and Deputy during their appearances before Parliament d.) Increasing the number of submissions per question paper. e.) For representatives from smaller parties to be included in the delegation on State visits to or receiving Presidents of other countries especially if such state visits are identifiable with certain cultural or religious groups in South Africa.
In respect of parliamentary representation, there will be a significant shift in the next election with the introduction of independent MPs. This will bring a new dynamic and hopefully strengthen our democracy. Given the experience and views of small parties, it will also cause challenges and Parliament must give due consideration to maximising the participation and effectiveness of all lawmakers.
About this blog
"That week in Parliament" is a series of blog posts in which the important Parliamentary events of the week are discussed.