A very good afternoon to the members of the Cape Town Press Club.
Thank you for the invitation to address you today.
In the work that we do – public and political life – it is my obsession to always question how relevant that work is to the people we represent.
And I think often about what ordinary South Africans think about the work of the national legislature and how it relates to their everyday life.
It would be pointless for us to have conversations about the institution of Parliament and its work if it is not tangibly experienced in the way that people live.
If you asked various people -across the vastly different socio-economic status spectrum – about what Parliament does and whether they believe it has an impact on their lives; I am certain their responses would be largely similar.
They would likely respond:
‘Parliament is where politicians go to work.’
‘They meet and discuss things we are largely unfamiliar with.’
‘They fight. They scream at each other. And if one was watching the State of the Nation Address two weeks ago, they are likely to say that ‘it is characterized by violence and chaos.’
I will venture to say that the institution has lost its gravitas and its usefulness in the politics of 2023.
Recently, we held a memorial plenary for the late Dr Frene Ginwala – democratic South Africa’s first Speaker of the National Assembly.
As someone who was not a Member of Parliament during her tenure, I read her record of work with great sadness.
Sadness for the loss of giant in the development of our democracy; but also for the loss of the institutional knowledge and culture since the likes of her and Mr Max Sisulu occupied that seat.
Many argue, that the respect of these institutions – despite their constitutional role – is irrelevant and misplaced in today’s political climate.
Others argue that the moment calls for the stripping of these institutions; and perhaps their destruction to emerge on the other end a different South Africa.
I have heard people saying the arrival of a party like the EFF made Parliament more entertaining and more relevant to the young, black, unemployed and angry South African.
And perhaps that is what has driven their party strategy of disruption, chaos and frankly disrespect of the institution.
I disagree with this assertion.
Let me tell you why.
When an 89-year-old gogo from Cofivamba switches on her TV – if she’s lucky enough to have electricity - and watches the Parliamentary channel to scenes of MPs screaming at each other and some being dragged by protection services, I doubt she will feel energized or excited.
Her concerns of safety, the rising cost of living and the host of children and grandchildren who live off her social grant are not in any way addressed or her fears allayed.
When a 26-year-old graduate – whose parents spent their last cents sending them to a higher education institution with the hope that they will work and create a life of dignity for themselves – watches the shocking scenes we have come to expect in the House; they do not feel any more hopeful about their future.
And so, the entertainment value of the culture of Parliament may only be experienced by those who wish to tear down our democratic gains and not those who are desperate for this country to work.
It is my firm belief that when Parliament works, South Africa will work.
As things stand now, Parliament does not work.
For decades, the institution has been hollowed out, purposefully.
It has been rendered redundant to shield incompetent and corrupt politicians from scrutiny despite their betrayal of their oath of office.
We have seen this by the disastrous term in office of the then Speaker of the National Assembly Ms Baleka Mbethe at the height of what the ANC terms as the 9 wasted years.
During that time, we saw ANC MPs falling over themselves to shield former President Jacob Zuma from accountability over the hundreds of millions that were spent upgrading his home.
A home that is just a stone throw away from an impoverished community of eNkandla.
Today, you will battle to find a brave enough supporter of Jacob Zuma, yet many of them sit in the benches of Parliament.
When Chief Justice Raymond Zondo read out the section in his report about how Parliament failed in its responsibility of holding the executive to account and by doing so aided and abated State Capture it should have been a wake-up call.
Former Speaker of the National Assembly, Thandi Modise apologized to South Africans for Parliament’s failures.
That apology rings hollow under the leadership of the current Speaker, Nosiviwe Mapisa Nqakula.
No lessons have been learnt.
No reforms are in the pipeline.
This is despite the litany of recommendations which have been made to Parliament to strengthen its hand against corruption.
For me, the destruction and decay of Parliament under the current crop of ANC leaders, was laid to bare during the Phala Phala scandal.
Parliament was tasked with establishing a panel that would investigate whether or not the President broke his oath of office.
When the matter came to a vote in Parliament, an instruction from the ANC’s NEC was sent to vote against the probe because of the party’s imminent elective conference.
The fact that this was open communication, covered widely and reiterated by many ANC leaders is a shame.
How does the ANC justify to themselves that Parliament commissioned the work of this panel – at great financial public cost – but then follows a party line to shut its work down?
Regardless of your personal view of the President, he has a case to answer for:
Why was so much foreign currency stored in his home?
Did he abide by the regulatory requirements of SARS and the South African Reserve Bank?
Why did he not report the matter to the SAPS when the money was stolen?
What of the allegations that his presidential protection unit was sent as his personal debt collector across the border?
These questions would have been posed to him, answers obtained and action taken in a working Parliament.
The hollowing out of Parliament has not happened overnight, but has been a systematic strategy over decades.
It was no doubt epitomized by the fire that gutted the precinct last year.
The once beautiful, majestic House where laws of democratic South Africa were passed is gone.
It lies in rubble a full year later.
To date, we are yet to see the outcome of the internal investigations which sheds light into what happened that day and why the fire was able to ravage through a large chunk of the parliamentary buildings.
We still don’t know the motive or who ought to be held accountable for the many mitigation measures which never kicked into gear.
This morning, the Secretary to Parliament, Mr Xolile George held a press briefing in which he announced a ‘milestone’ as he termed it.
Parliament has finally decided it is time rebuild the institution. Over a year later, they have some semblance of a project plan which projects that they are likely to be finished with the rebuilding in two and half years’ time.
The real pinnacle of the milestone is the announcement that now can begin the process of clearing out the rubble.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is simply not good enough.
The DA has long called for an alternative venue for Parliament to conduct its business while the rebuilding project takes place. Following the briefing by Mr George today, it is still unclear what the plan is for this.
We meet in a venue that houses only a 3rd of the 400 members of the national assembly.
Most ministers connect to the proceedings virtually and are often interrupted by rolling blackouts and perhaps their reluctance to be held accountable.
That is why the DA has approached its legal team to issue a letter of demand to Parliament to provide a suitable venue.
Parliament has until tomorrow to provide feedback to our lawyers. We will proceed with our legal case against Parliament until a comprehensive plan to fully restore the functionality of Parliament is presented and attached to court imposed deadlines.
This legal case is not just about a venue for meetings; it is about our ability to conduct the business of Parliament as the Constitution dictates, we should.
As we speak, members of the public have not been able to access their Parliament since 2020, before the COVID 19 pandemic.
And they will not be able to observe sittings of Parliament or attend committee meetings as they are entitled to until Parliament gets it act together.
Portfolio committees are the engine room of Parliament; where laws are deliberated on. This is why the drafters of our Constitution and the rules of Parliament saw it fit to include the public in the work their representatives do.
That is the real importance of our case against Parliament.
While the challenges facing our Parliament and indeed our democracy seem vast, not all hope is lost.
This is exactly why as the official opposition we take our responsibility to South Africa seriously.
There are ways that we can reform this institution and by extension reform how the work of government is done.
As an example:
Without the mechanisms provided to us by Parliament, we would have never uncovered the true cost of monies spent on catering, government events and accommodation during the lockdown period.
We would never know the real matric pass rate; or the unsanitized version of crime statistics.
This is why this institution is worthy of our time and effort to save it.
We are fighting Parliament to have most of the Zondo Commission recommendations implemented so we never have the repeat of state capture again.
There needs to be a portfolio committee which overlooks the Presidency which has become bloated under the Ramaphosa administration.
The task teams, the commissions, the advisors, state security and now the newly touted Minister of Electricity all fall under the presidency.
We need to be able to analyze each budget item against outcomes.
The DA has long called for opposition members to chair portfolio committees; a call which was echoed by Chief Justice Zondo in his report.
Regardless of who is in government, accountability and scrutiny cannot be left to the governing party. It undermines the principle of checks and balances.
In an effort to once again make Parliament the center of the people’s business, we have introduced legislation which will seek to stabilize coalition governments in the future.
If we are to accept that coalition governments are here to stay and that the research which suggests that the ANC will dip below 50% in 2024, then we need to prepare as Parliament.
The instability we have seen at a local government level in places like Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni, would never be sustainable at a provincial or national level.
In our proposed legislation will address the following:
We need a legislative framework to manage how coalition governments are run. As things stand, coalition agreements mean nothing and the checkbook politics of the corrupt disrupt any governance plans might be in place.
It becomes more about what positions you can offer instead of what the government seeks to do for its citizens.
We believe, introducing an independent coalition ombudsman which will manage the mechanics of the coalition government, similar to the Kenyan model will go a long way to stabilize the process.
The introduction of an electoral threshold for parties who wish to be part of a government like we have seen in the German model will stop the over-fragmentation of politics and stem the rise of smaller parties who become kingmakers that are easily bought off.
We would propose a 1-2% threshold, much lower than a country like Germany in order to give effect to the Constitutional imperative of proportional representation.
Lastly, we propose binding and codified coalition agreements – administered by the ombudsman – to avoid backroom deals made by greedy politicians who care little about the residents of that city, province or at a national level.
We are working hard to get many parties -including the ANC – behind this Bill because we do believe it can change the way that coalition governments are done and how people live in South Africa.
Many of you would know how the world wrote South Africa off in the early 90s.
Our transition into democracy seemed unattainable.
But here we are.
A country with strong institutions that simply requires a government that cares to sustain them.
We have a year to go until all of us head to the polls, a privilege we dare not take for granted.
Many died ensuring that we could always elect a government of our choosing.
My hope is that every South African makes use of that opportunity in 2024.
This country does not belong to a group of politicians, it belongs to all of you.
Go cast your vote next year.
Vote to revive institutions like Parliament.
Vote to retain the independence of our judiciary.
Vote to restore service delivery in our cities and our towns.
Vote to restore the dignity and equal opportunity which was promised in 1994.
If you do not take this opportunity, there very well may not be a democracy to save in 2029.
Issued by Siviwe Gwarube,Chief Whip of the Official Opposition, 21 February 2023