Parliamentary committee changes will benefit ANC

The new configuration could curb issues around committees not achieving quorums, which has been a problem. (David Harrison, M&G)

The new configuration could curb issues around committees not achieving quorums, which has been a problem. (David Harrison, M&G)

After the threat of losing its decisive majority in Parliament’s portfolio committees, the ANC managed to change the structure of the committees even though it did not get the hoped for reduction in the overall number of committees.

Parliament has reduced the membership of each oversight committee to 11 from 12 in the previous Parliament, in accordance with an ANC proposal. The party also wanted to reduce the number of committees, which are the engines that do most of Parliament’s work. But the ANC backed off after stiff opposition from opposition parties, especially the Democratic Alliance (DA), whose MPs would have been left without committees on which to serve.

Smaller parliamentary committees would give the shrinking ANC in Parliament a considerable majority if it was successful in decreasing the number of committees.

The ANC wanted to gather portfolio committees in clusters, saying that a Cabinet of 38 portfolios – plus the standing committees on appropriations, ethics, intelligence, finance, auditor general and public accounts – takes the number of committees to 44 and stretches its MPs to their limits.

Parliament’s rules committee – which is tasked, along with the National Assembly speaker, with establishing a range of portfolio committees and determining their composition – resolved to accept the ANC’s proposal to reduce the number of members on each committees to 11 from 12 on Wednesday.

Negotiations between political parties
This follows week-long negotiations between political parties in a task team that was established by the rules committee on Wednesday last week to consider the possible clustering of portfolio committees, as well as their size and composition.

In its proposal on June 4 to cluster portfolios “that were a natural fit”, the ANC cited a possible clustering of the women in the presidency and social development committees into one. 

ANC chief whip Stone Sizani said there were numerous cross-cutting areas between those portfolios.
Sizani gave an example on how Parliament could cluster energy as a regulatory portfolio with public enterprises, which was the implementing agent. “Such clustering would assist in making oversight more effective,” he said.

But none of the opposition parties were convinced.

It was decided at Wednesday’s meeting that portfolio committees would mirror the appointed ministries with the exception of performance, monitoring, and evaluation, which would be clustered with public service and administration.

Parliament would therefore establish 32 portfolio committees, while oversight of the ministry of finance and treasury would be exercised by the standing committee on finance and standing committee on appropriations, and the state security ministry by the joint standing committee on intelligence.

Of the 11 members of each committee, the ANC will still hold the majority with six, two to the DA, one to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and the remaining parties will share two membership positions.

‘Oversight and accountability’
The ANC’s official line is that its call for the changes was “to ensure efficient and effective functioning for the purposes of oversight and accountability”. But a number of sources have said the ruling party found itself in a tight corner following its reduced majority in Parliament after the May 7 general elections.

The ANC has enjoyed comfortable representation in committees in the past as a result of its huge majority, but the party’s number of seats in the National Assembly decreased to 249 from  264 in 2009.

President Jacob Zuma’s large executive of 72, plus the appointments of a deputy president, parliamentary counsel, presiding officers, and chief whip and deputy, left the ANC with only 170 MPs who could be deployed to portfolio committees.

The opposition parties share a combined 151 seats.

Portfolio committees monitor and oversee the work and budgets of national government departments and hold them accountable; consider and amend Bills, and may initiate Bills; consider international treaties and agreements; and have the power to summon any person to appear before them, give evidence or produce documents among other functions.

A senior ANC MP, who sits on Parliament’s rules committee and spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the ANC wanted the reduction of the number and size of portfolio committees “to avert a crisis”.

“We will maintain our majority. We have been working hard on this ... and yes we will reduce committees to 11 people,” said the MP.

“This means our people [MPs] will have to attend committee meetings diligently. They can no longer afford to be absent from committees. If people don’t attend, we are in shit.”

Establishment of committees
Lawson Naidoo of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac), said the new configuration could curb issues around committees not achieving quorums, which has been a problem.

“You’d find MPs walking past committee rooms and only going in to vote on issues they know nothing about. This will force MPs to attend committee meetings,” said Naidoo.

The rules of the National Assembly require that a portfolio committee has no fewer than 13 members and no more than 40.

The House approved the adjustment to 12 members only for the duration of the fourth Parliament, and it will again have to agree to the changes proposed by the rules committee. The establishment of committees can only be formalised after the first sitting of the House.

DA chief whip John Steenhuisen said his party was quite happy with the new changes. “We were part of the negotiations in the task team and we put on the table a proposal which was very similar to what the ANC put on the table in terms of the restructuring of committees.”

He said there were two factors compounding the matter: firstly that the ANC reduced in size in the past elections and secondly that the Cabinet is now so big that a third of the ANC caucus is part of the executive.

“So obviously they are struggling and that was the reason for reducing the size of committees.”

Reducing the size of committees
Steenhuisen said the DA was more comfortable with reducing the size of committees than with the clustering model the ANC originally proposed, where more than one minister would be accountable to a portfolio committee.

“It also means more of our MPs can serve on committees and we are able to institute oversight and accountability,” said Steenhuisen.

This article was previously had an incorrect headline. This has been edited. We apologise for the error.

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