Where are constituency offices in a crisis?

COMMENT

The coronavirus crisis is the moment where our elected officials should be showing relevance and leadership through constituency offices. Most people do not even know who their member of parliament (MP) or member of provincial legislature (MPL) is, or where their MP’s constituency offices are situated. 

Even though the election was in May last year, by early March 2020, the parliamentary monitoring group had been able to get the details for constituency offices from only nine of the 14 political parties represented in the National Assembly. Three parties: the Democratic Alliance, Economic Freedom Fighters and Inkatha Freedom Party provided partial or outdated information, whereas the ANC, African Transformation Movement and the Pan African Congress had not provided any of the information. So currently, the three largest parties have not provided this critical information.

As the first point of contact for people on the ground, constituency offices should have measures in place to distribute reliable information and facilitate provision of essential services to the communities they serve. The constituency office system, like other government mechanisms, should be assisting communities in a time of dire need. 

We trust that the importance of constituency work during the disaster period will prompt these parties to make this information available immediately. The public urgently need to know how they can contact their constituency MPs during this period.

Pursuant with the constitutional imperative for an open and accessible national legislature, the provision of public funds for political parties represented in Parliament to run constituency offices is intended to enable parties to perform this function. The constituency office system thus serves as a direct link between elected officials and the public, and functions as a critical organ of “an activist Parliament” for citizens to raise issues. 

MPs are assigned to constituencies by their political parties, even though they are not elected from geographic areas in the way that ward councilors are in local government elections. MPs are meant to use constituency offices to provide the public with assistance in accessing services such as social grants, housing, health et cetera, as well as a mechanism to report back to the communities on what is happening in Parliament. Most areas in the country should have one or more constituency offices where citizens can directly contact their MPs.

South Africa is particularly vulnerable to this pandemic. With an already stressed healthcare system, high incidence rates of HIV and tuberculosis, millions of people living in densely populated informal settlements, and concerning levels of poverty and unemployment, the potential effects on the country and its people is immense. 

Every effort should be taken to mitigate the consequences and so a “whole of society” and a “whole of government” response is required. 

Constituency offices, therefore, have a critically important role to play, particularly in protecting the most vulnerable people.

So, how have constituency offices been keeping the most marginalised and those who really need the information and assistance informed during this time?

Before the lockdown, the KwaZulu-Natal legislature led the constituency awareness campaign where MPLs from every district and their respective party constituency offices distributed information on containing the spread of the virus. Likewise, Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape legislature and Gauteng launched awareness campaigns. These campaigns targeted densely populated areas, which was very effective in getting the message to the most marginalised.

Programmes that have been run making use of the constituency office system to raise awareness of coronavirus should be commended, but this has not been happening in a co-ordinated manner across the country and there has not been adequate communication about what plans are in place to address this. 

Ultimately, hundreds of millions of rand of public money is allocated towards the constituency office system each year, yet there is no proper monitoring of how these offices operate and whether political parties are spending their allocations correctly and providing services as they should be. Moreover, neither Parliament nor political parties make it easy for the public to find elected representatives. This poses questions over the institutional oversight of the system.

The extraordinary position we find ourselves in should not be an excuse to abdicate this responsibility. Our leaders also need to adapt and to develop ways to reach out and engage with those whom they serve where the usual avenues are not available or practical. 

The coronavirus crisis illustrates why an effective and proper functioning constituency office system is an essential element required to respond to challenges such as this.

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Letlhogonolo Letshele
Letlhogonolo Letshele is an electoral systems researcher at My Vote Counts. She holds an MA in politics and international relations from the University of Johannesburg

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