As many as 82% of African National Congress MPs have left Parliament since 1994, debilitating the legislature’s oversight powers as its ranks have been filled with junior ruling party members who lack the political clout to hold the executive to account.
Only 49, or 18%, of the ANC’s 274 MPs have remained since 1994. More than a quarter of the current crop was only elected in 2004.
This juniorisation of Parliament — the heartbeat of democracy — has had “a very substantial effect” on its functioning, said Ben Turok, ANC MP since 1995. “There is a certain degree of parochialism and a more limited understanding of issues.”
Another senior MP who has been in Parliament since 1994 and wished to remain anonymous said the problem is “very serious, the MPs have no staying power”.
Former speaker Frene Ginwala said the exodus from the National Assembly has to be seen against a historical background, because when MPs entered Parliament in 1994 it wasn’t a career choice, it was “a continuum of what they had been doing … inevitably as society began to deracialise, doors opened for them and they were able to make choices”.
Only nine of the 27 portfolio committee chairpersons (33%) have been in Parliament since 1994. The portfolio committees are the engine room of the National Assembly and it is at this level that most policies are thrashed out, and which are then presented to the plenary. The experience and seniority of the chairpersons are therefore crucial to their efficacy.
Take the standing committee on public accounts (Scopa): its chairperson, the Pan-Africanist Congress’s Themba Godi, only became an MP in 2004.
While his job is made more difficult by the fact that he is from an opposition party and faces the bulwark of the ANC, Scopa is barely functional.
According to Eddie Trent, the Democratic Alliance Scopa spokesperson, the committee has reviewed fewer than 50% of the 286 auditor general’s reports for last year — less than a month before the committee must begin to examine the 2006 reports. Scopa hardly meets, said Trent.
This was, however, contested by Godi. “We have our weekly meetings on a Tuesday and a Wednesday,” he said. “The only time they don’t happen is when there is a public holiday or the parliamentary programme messes us up. We do have a very heavy workload and this is juxtaposed with capacity [deficiencies] in the committee, which puts a lot of strain on our ability to do our work. But we are developing processes to manage the load [more efficiently] next time around.”
Only five of the 15 ANC MPs in Scopa have been in Parliament since 1994.
In a book called Anatomy of South Africa: Who Holds the Power?, to be published in September, Richard Calland, executive director of the Open Democracy Advice Centre at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, writes that a large proportion of the MPs who have left Parliament have been deployed by the party to other structures of the state. Equally, many have left the state to pursue private business interests.
“Very talented people have taken the decision to move their talents elsewhere,” he said, this week. “The ANC realised it needed to redeploy people, but this ongoing brain drain has diluted the ANC’s strength. On the other hand, for the ANC, strategically, a weak Parliament may not necessarily be against their interests.”
But the recent controversy that has surrounded the Superior Courts Bill and the draft Constitution 14th Amendment Bill, illustrates the extent to which executive pressure has been brought to bear on processes in the National Assembly, which lacks the political clout and seniority in the face of its seniors in Cabinet.
The justice ministry had tried to push it through Parliament — it was gazetted in mid-December last year, with time for public response expiring on January 15 this year. Few interested citizens or members of the bench would have been aware of its publication. It was only shelved when President Thabo Mbeki intervened directly in June this year.
“It’s partly a hierarchical issue,” said Calland. “Junior members are generally unable to hold the executive to account.”
According to Turok, the party is “very conscious of the absence” of the senior ANC MPs who have left the National Assembly and the new intake of MPs largely lacks institutional memory.
MPs who have moved on
Pregs Govender, chairperson of the joint standing committee on the status of women (1996 to 2002), quit in protest over the arms deal and government inertia on HIV and Aids.
Mongane Wally Serote, chairperson of the portfolio committee on arts (1994 to 2002), left Parliament to assume the position of CEO of the Freedom Park Trust.
Saki Macozoma, chairperson of the portfolio committee for communication (1994 to 1996), quit to become CEO of Transnet.
Nat Kekana, chairperson of the communications committee (1999 to 2003), resigned to take up a position as group executive for regulatory and public policy at Telkom.
Pravin Gordhan, chairperson of the constitutional committee (1994-1998), left to become deputy commissioner of the South African Revenue Service.
Max Sisulu, chief whip (1997 to 1999), left to become CEO of Denel.
Blade Nzimande, chairperson of the education committee (1994 to 1999), left to become South African Communist Party general secretary.
Marcel Golding, chairperson of the minerals and energy committee (1994 to 1996), left to become chairperson of Hosken Consolidated Investments.
Titus Mafolo, chairperson of the housing committee (1994 to 1997), left Parliament to become political adviser to Mbeki.
Raymond Suttner, chairperson of the foreign affairs committee (1994 to 1996), left Parliament in 1999 to become ambassador to Sweden.
Source: Anatomy of South Africa: Who Holds the Power? by Richard Calland, executive director of the Open Democracy Advice Centre at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. To be published by Zebra in September