/ 19 September 2022

Want to have a word with parliament? Here’s how

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A statue of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's former president, stands outside the parliament building in Cape Town, South Africa, on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Moodys Investors Service in November gave South Africa's Finance Minister Tito Mboweni just under four months to come up with a credible plan to rein in government debt and get the economy growing. (Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Parliament, also called the people’s assembly, is mandated to represent the people of South Africa. Our democracy allows us to raise our voices, but how do you do that, and does it really matter? 

Limited to no more than 400 MPs, “every member of parliament is set to represent the citizens of the country and to be acting on our behalf”, according to social development commentator Tessa Dooms. 

Public participation and involvement is central to parliament’s mandate and it is “a constitutional imperative”, says parliament’s spokesperson Moloto Mothapo. 

Sections 59(1) and 72(1) of the Constitution enjoins both houses of parliament — the national assembly and the national council of provinces (NCOP) — to facilitate the involvement of the public in their legislative and other processes.

In terms of sections 56(d) and 69(d) the public can send petitions, representations and submissions to the national assembly and the NCOP or any of their nearly 50 committees. 

Parliament also hosts the State of the Nation address and local government week, conducts oversight visits and participates on media platforms such as Parliament TV and social media. 

Mothapo said, “The intention of public participation and involvement in democratic processes is primarily to influence decision-making processes that reflect ‘the will of the people’.”

But people seldom agree that parliament considers the voices of those they represent. 

An example can be drawn from the participatory process on the National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill in 2019, which was criticised “as a process designed to elicit only messages of support”, the Mail & Guardian reported back then.  

Dooms highlights systematic errors “that make participation difficult, and make participation less powerful than what the Constitution has envisioned”, in that parliamentarians are chosen by political parties and not the public. 

When MPs are sworn in, they promise to serve the public and not their political party but this does not always happen, says Dooms.  

This she ascribes to the party system that appoints the MPs and the lack of a constituency based system where parliamentarians can be held accountable by the people (public) who elected them. 

Dooms contends: “There is too much power invested in the parties and people don’t get to have a say in the accountability of MPs and that’s causing people, even if they do know how to engage, not really feel there is a point”.

But do South Africans actively interact with parliament in terms of petitions, representations and submissions? Statistics on this are not available but Mothapo confirmed that parliament receives a “substantial number of correspondences through various communion platforms on a daily basis”. 

Does parliament respond to public correspondence? 

Mothapo said any correspondence addressed to parliament or committees “should expect an acknowledgement of receipt and response to their matter”. 

But, he adds: “Depending on the nature of the correspondence, or a matter being raised, turnaround [time] might vary,” and in some cases, the writer might be invited to address parliament on the subject.  

Talking to someone in parliament’s management structures, the M&G was told, without much optimism, that responses can be expected within a “reasonable” time frame.  

Asked if people writing to parliament can expect a response, Rashaad Alli, executive director of the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) answered with similar uncertainty.

“It depends. Of course, if it is a big organisation like Corruption Watch, the committee is likely to respond. [I] can’t say definitely.”

Fortunately, there are no restrictions on who can write to parliament. Both citizens and non-citizens such as academics, activists, organisations, individuals, immigrants can voice their concerns. 

How to have your say 

When you want to submit a general message, you can write to a specific MP or send your message to up to five MPs or to a parliamentary committee

Parliament does advise that before you contact an MP you discuss the matter with a local councillor, the Presidential Hotline, National Anti-Corruption Hotline or the public protector, because the ability of MPs to assist “is limited”. 

Messages sent to parliamentary committees are received by the general public relations office, before being submitted to the relevant committee. Follow-up inquiries about your submission can be sent to the same office. 

Submitting a message to parliament is simple.  

  1. Go to the page on parliament’s website by clicking here
  2. Choose to which parliamentary portfolio you want to make a submission by choosing from the options available. 
  3. Click on the red square that says “Draft message”. 
  4. Give a subject to your message and write your message in the text box provided. 
  5. Fill in your personal information as requested, which includes your name and email address. 
  6. Once you have entered all the relative information, click on the red square that says “Preview your message”. 
  7. After reviewing your message, submit it by pressing “Send message”, or if you want to amend it, click on “Edit message” and follow step six and seven again. 

On the submission page you will find tips on how to structure your message as well as examples of previous inputs to parliament. 

Make a submission

A submission is a public response to a “call for comment” from parliament. In other words, a submission is a written presentation of views about legislation or other matters that are under consideration by a parliamentary committee. 

The committee can invite you for an oral submission in parliament. 

To track calls for comment you can follow the list on parliament’s website. All relevant information, such as who to contact, will appear alongside the call for comment. The committee’s secretary will receive your submission, and that person’s contacts will accompany the call for comment.  

How to submit a petition 

Parliament does not receive many petitions; it is described as “a last resort to seeking relief”. A petition is a formal written request, usually signed by more than one person, seeking assistance from parliament or a provincial legislature on a specific matter usually concerning service delivery. 

There are two types of petitions, a general or public petition by a group of people with a shared grievance, or a special petition by an individual who seeks personal relief from the state. 

The petitions committee receives petitions.

You can submit a petition through an MP and they will present it to the national assembly.