A cowed National Assembly means political interests prevail over those of the populace, writes The Congress of the People's Mosiuoa Lekota.
Section 42(3) of South Africa’s Constitution states clearly that the “National Assembly is elected to represent the people and to ensure government by the people under the Constitution”.
In practice, however, political interests apart from the social and economic concerns of the population receive optimal consideration in Parliament.
We witness a ruling party trying to institute government over the people rather than facilitate a government by the people. The passage of the Protection of State Information Bill through the National Assembly clearly showed how political consideration trumps public concern.
A similar thing is happening in the National Council of Provinces. On June 13 the council’s ad hoc committee that must redraft the Protection of State Information Bill cancelled its scheduled meetings because of a deadlock with the overbearing department of state security.
Despite voluminous written representation from the public, it is quite apparent to the ad hoc committee that the security department wants its will to prevail in terms of the Bill. The will of the people, which should override every other consideration, is being given short shrift.
Public consideration of issues
By cumulative little measures, each of which disregards the public will, a government over the people will have come into existence.
The Constitution specifically requires the involvement of all our people in government to ensure that equality and basic freedoms are kept alive and to achieve the kind of social cohesion and prosperity we need. A vibrant legislature, visibly closer to the people than to the executive, is necessary to guarantee the required separation of powers.
The Constitution compels Parliament to provide “a national forum for public consideration of issues”. Of necessity, this requires an open exchange of ideas and information. In our deeply divided and grossly unequal society, the imperative to maintain dialogue is essential.
All legislation and taxation must therefore be thoroughly examined, tested and debated before becoming law. Side by side with the legislative process, the National Assembly must also scrutinise and oversee executive action.
Unfortunately, as the public is increasingly witnessing, MPs are beholden to members of the executive for their positions, privileges and promotions. As a result, the people are becoming disillusioned. The speaker himself bemoans shoddy legislation that has to be returned to Parliament for fixing. Parliament is also distancing itself from the issues of the moment.
On May 7, for example, I wrote to the speaker requesting a debate on a matter of public importance, as allowed for in rule 103. The Congress of the People, the party I represent, wanted to discuss the auditor general’s exasperation about things that were “worrying” and required a “response” and about which “every leader in this country had heard”, but about which nothing had been done.
The loss of R30-billion in futile and fruitless expenditure, as detailed by the auditor general, should have resulted in numerous debates in Parliament, but not even a single debate on the issue could be accommodated. The speaker replied that, “While the issues you raise are important, I am not convinced that the route you propose is the appropriate one”.
It beggars belief. If not Parliament, what “route” would be appropriate? Should the cry of the auditor general for rigorous attention to poor money management go unheard?
On the one hand, we have one of the most bloated Cabinets in the world, with 36 ministers and 39 deputy ministers absorbing a big slice of the total budget. On the other, we have a weak legislature unable to assert itself on the basis of the separation of powers.
The dominance of the executive in our politics and its deepening asymmetry with the legislative authority is going to be further entrenched if, in the name of national security and the right to classify information under the “secrecy Bill”, the executive seizes greater power.
Legislature is too hidebound
The idea that ordinary people can influence their representatives on a continuous basis is fading. The executive is too big and too assertive and the legislature is too hidebound and too timid.
That the National Assembly is overly indulgent towards the executive can be seen from what happened on June 12. The deputy speaker asked me to withdraw the inference I made, on May 30, that it was “a violation of the oath of office” for the president to ignore violations of human rights under the Constitution.
There is no rule in our Parliament comparable to Malawi’s standing order 85, which demands that the “conduct of the president shall not be called into question in the course of debate other than by way of the procedure for impeachment”.
Section 83 of our Constitution requires that the president uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. If, by omission, he fails to do so, it is perfectly legitimate to raise this issue with him in a debate on his vote when he is present. Had he violated his oath by commission of a deliberate act, impeachment would have been the route to follow.
Parliament as a whole
The National Assembly’s tendency to toe the party line blindly will stifle honest debate and improperly mollycoddle the president, who has constitutional duties to discharge and for which he must be rigorously held accountable by Parliament.
Yet it seems that an improvement in the working of Parliament would come only by means of public clamour for a genuine “government by the people under the Constitution”.
If a litmus test were to be applied to see whether “Parliament as a whole” is “capable of legislating in the face of pressure from a powerful government department” or allowing robust criticism of the president, the result would leave South Africans disappointed. The Constitution is becoming an instrument of fading utility.
The institutional balance in our constitutional democracy is so dysfunctional, leaders are so remote from the people, corruption is so endemic and Parliament so tame that our constitutional democracy is in danger of imploding.