Speech by John Steenhuisen MP Chief Whip of the Official Opposition on Parliament’s budget vote, 16 July 2019
Democracy works, when Parliament works
“One of the things that I am going to do is establish a special task team to look at issues of how Parliament exercised oversight over the years in regard to issues of state capture and corruption. So part of what you are saying would fall under that because it may well be that as I have said a few times over – since last date it may well be that if Parliament had played its oversight role some of the challenges may have been dealt with early. So it is important to have a look and to see where there may have been failures on the part of Parliament, on the part of Portfolio Committees and see what would need to be done for the future.”
These words uttered by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo during the commission of enquiry into State Capture are an indictment on the 4th and 5th parliament and should be wake up call to all of us in this Parliament to do what needs to be done to restore this house to being the ground zero of executive accountability and oversight in South Africa.
So, in the words of Lenin, and that’s Vladimir, not John:
“What is to be done”?
A good place to begin to answer this question is to go back to first principles, and look at what the Constitution at section 42(3) tasks this house with doing:
Scrutinizing and Oversight of Executive Action:
We can make a good start by ensuring that ministers are, in the first place, accountable to this house. This means that we must assert our role as the accountability mechanism and insist that ministers attend to their constitutional obligation to account to this house. Far too many ministers in the 5th Parliament were able to escape their responsibilities to account.
Some of them missed their oral question sessions for over a year with little or no action ever taken against them. And when tough questions are asked ministers must not be mollycoddled and protected by presiding officers. Tough questions make good ministers! It forces them to be on top of their brief and in touch with what is actually going on in their department.
Ministers must respond to the written questions that are sent to them and they must be fulsome, honest and proper replies. The Speaker’s office should be constantly monitoring the response times and sending improper replies back to ministers when these are brought to her attention. She needs to be on the side of the members of this house, and not on the side of the executive
Oversight and accountability model
Speaker, we must revisit the oversight and accountability model of Parliament. Far too many sections of it are vague and don’t empower MP’s to perform effective oversight. One such example is individual member oversight in our constituencies. A disturbing practice has started to entrench itself where MP’s are required to get permission from provincial MEC’s to conduct oversight at state facilities such as hospitals, police stations and the like.
This is a gross violation of our rights and privileges as MP’s because often these processes take absolute ages and sometimes, especially when there is something to hide, these requests are deliberately frustrated and hampered. This undermines accountability and makes it very difficult to bring these problems to the National Assembly for resolution.
Holding ourselves accountable
But of course to be credible, any oversight requires us to be able to hold ourselves accountable too. How do we honestly look at government ministers and ask them to weed out bad elements in their departments and ranks when it has taken us more than two years to deal with our own “Rotten Apple”, such as the Secretary to Parliament whose disciplinary process still remains unresolved and appears no closer to finalisation.
It’s also very difficult to say that we are fully committed to cleaning out the Aegean Stables of the filth of state capture, when many of this implicated or involved now hold senior leadership positions in this very institution. Heading up some of the key levers to exercise oversight and hold the executive accountable are some of the architects, enablers and implementers of State Capture. They belong behind bars, not behind the committee tables of this house.
And holding ourselves accountable means that we must also hold our own members to a higher standard. The Ethics committee of the 5th parliament was a complete and utter failure, it was feebly chaired by co-chairs who couldn’t run a bath, let alone a committee and as a result members who have severely compromised the integrity of this institution were allowed to get away with the worst type of behaviour imaginable. I sincerely hope Speaker that this committee and its activities will be receiving much more attention from the presiding officers, and you particularly as you are tasked by our rules with upholding the values, ethos and image of this house.
The 5th parliament had a miserable track record of dealing with legislation. Far too little attention to detail was made and far too little time was set aside for us to focus on passing good, unimpeachable legislation. Members need to be better equipped and capacitated to become good legislators.
There is a fundamental imbalance of forces when it comes to the legislature and the executive. Ministers arrive with batteries of legal advisors, departmental officials and experts. Parliament on the other hand sits with a few officials, a lone advisor who is advising several committees, a researcher who is juggling several portfolios and this imbalance of forces invariably leads to the executive bulldozing their legislation through.
This is not the way it should be and far more of the budget of parliament needs to be directed towards assisting members with top quality research, legal opinion and professional advice if we are to ever truly give effect to our constitutional mandate in this regard.
A National Forum for Debate:
A debate by its very nature requires both sides of an argument to be put, and if we are to have a proper forum for consideration of the issues of the day then this needs to take place in away in which all members are able to put forward their argument.
At this stage I think it imperative to turn my attention to the events that took place in this Parliament last week. Stopping somebody from speaking in this house is not a debate, neither is it an act of accountability, it is an act of thuggery and democratic sabotage which should never ever be tolerated.
This house must be an arena of debate where words, arguments and opinions prevail. The only clash should be the clash of ideas, not the clash of fists, the only disruption should be disruptive ideas.
Let me be clear, the scenes we witnessed last week were not democracy in action, no matter how hard the EFF try to cloak them as such. They were the very antithesis of what this house means and what it represents.
Let me also be clear, I abhor the socialist Chavez policies that the EFF espouses and the suffering and misery that these policies have caused wherever they have been implemented but I will fight to make sure that the EFF have the opportunity to espouse them in this parliament for this is their right!
And, perhaps a warning was spelt out for us by one of the EF’s most beloved lodestars, Karl Marx who said:
“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”
And yes, we have seen the type of behaviour we witnessed last week, it was on full display in the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic, where the National Socialist German Workers Party, regardless of their relatively small electoral size, they wore boots and uniforms into the house (sound familiar?).
Whenever they disapproved of a speaker they either marched out as a body or marched in to disrupt a speaker from making their argument (sound familiar?).
When they couldn’t get their way they rendered the sittings incapable of proceeding through spurious parliamentary actions (sound familiar?).
We must not allow what was the culmination of that behaviour in Germany, with its awful consequences to happen in our democratic Parliament. The rules must be applied and this behaviour must be condemned and there must be consequences because the surest way to ensure our democracy works, is to ensure that our parliament works!