Parliament shake-up needed before 2024, says Democratic Alliance

It is gratifying to read that the proposals I had made in my written and oral submissions to the Zondo commission on state capture have been included in its last report that was made public in July 2022.

Major changes are required in parliament. A supposedly simple thing such as the minutes of meetings in parliament are meaningless. When preparing for my submission to the Zondo commission, I — and representatives of the Zondo commission — had to turn to the independent and privately funded information service, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, to provide us with accurate and more detailed minutes of meetings. This is just one example of how, despite the extensive resources available to parliament, its output remains sub-par.

Last week the Democratic Alliance (DA) released a 10-point plan on how to make parliament work properly. This plan echoes the proposals I made to Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. The committee system in parliament is broken, with ANC committee members abusing their majority. As a result, when I was the representative for transport, my numerous attempts to initiate a commission of inquiry into the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa was blocked by the ANC over and over again. 

Because of the disproportionate strength of the ANC in parliament, it holds the chairpersonship of all portfolio committees, except for the standing committee on public accounts. A more transparent and open system would be one where political parties would be entitled proportionately to serve as portfolio and select committee chairpersons. This is a common feature in many parliamentary systems throughout the world. 

This is particularly important when ensuring that there is a definitive separation of powers in the legislature (in this case, both houses of parliament — the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces) to keep a check on the executive. In addition, in cases where a country has an overly dominant political party, such as in South Africa, the necessary in-depth oversight cannot be achieved. 

Even in countries with first-past-the-post electoral systems, patronage, political connections, networks and political ambitions are all reasons for MPs not subjecting their colleagues in the executive to scrutiny. Only in cases where the executive and the majority of the legislature are not from the same party is a robust examination of a president and cabinet ministers more likely. The effectiveness of a legislature is dependent on strong committees that hold the executive to account without fear or favour. 

Other important parliamentary functions such as oversight work and public participation are often “stage managed” to ensure that government and the executive are reflected in the best possible light while ignoring, and even hiding, the negatives. 

Submitting questions to ministers for written or oral reply is one of the ways in which MPs hold the government to account. But it has become the norm that replies by ministers to questions posed are incomplete and lack detail and depth. This means ministers follow the rules of parliament and technically reply to questions but will sometimes provide “lukewarm” or “sweetheart” replies. 

We often hear from the speaker and presiding officers that the fact that “we do not like the answers” is irrelevant because they say the ministers are answering the questions. According to the ANC, we should be satisfied that the minister answers our questions in the first place, implying that the reply is almost inconsequential. As a result, my colleagues and I are in a constant “cat and mouse” game in trying to obtain replies to questions while ministers work hard at evading them. 

There should be penalties for ministers who miss the required deadline for the submission of replies as well as the quality of replies provided by them. Ministers treat questions, statements and motions in the house as irritants and simply do not take these important tools of accountability and transparency in the serious and constitutional light they demand.

The DA will continue to work hard to reform parliament, which for the length of the ANC tenure has progressively become weaker. 

As we prepare for a change of government in 2024, these reforms have to be made now so that they are ready for implementation.

Manny de Freitas MP is the Democratic Alliance spokesperson on tourism in parliament and chair of the party’s Johannesburg region.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Manny de Freitas
Manny de Freitas is the Democratic Alliance spokesperson on tourism in parliament and chair of the party’s Johannesburg region

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