For SA to work, Parliament must work – John Steenhuisen

DA IL says state capture could have been prevented had the institution done its job

For South Africa to work, Parliament must work

21 November 2019

Dear Members of the Press Gallery,

Building, strengthening and defending our democracy is not an overnight job. You have to do the hard yards – there are no shortcuts. But if you persevere, the results will eventually come.

And so today I welcome the arrest of former State Security Minister and ANC MP Bongani Bongo on charges relating to the alleged bribery of the evidence leader in Parliament’s Eskom Inquiry back in 2017. It is encouraging to see that the wheels of justice are indeed turning.

On 22 November 2017 I laid criminal charges against Bongo in terms of the Prevention and Combatting of Corrupt Activities Act when it emerged that he had allegedly offered Advocate Ntuthuzelo Vanara a bribe in exchange for stepping down as evidence leader in the Inquiry. At the time there were the usual voices who questioned this, asking “what’s the point?”

The point is this: If you want to turn things around, you have to be prepared to put in the work at every step of the way. In this case it began with laying the charges in 2017, but it also involved continuously fighting for better resources for the NPA, as well as fighting for the depoliticisation of the institution.

I hope that Bongo’s arrest and prosecution will serve as encouragement to those who may feel despondent at what often feels like a lack of justice and accountability in our country. It may be two years down the line, but it’s happening. And if we all stick to our guns and do the hard yards, we can eventually fix every part of our troubled nation.

Recently I have spent a lot of time setting out my vision for both the future of the DA and for our country. I have addressed many different audiences and I have written in several publications as the newly-elected Interim Federal Leader of the DA.

But I also hold the position of Parliamentary Leader of the DA and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. And this is the hat I am wearing today in this engagement with you, the Parliamentary Press Gallery. I would like to share with you some of our plans for the Sixth Parliament – of how we can ensure that we best carry out our mandated duty on behalf of 58 million South Africans.

Parliament is the most crucial institution of our democracy. When it works as it should, it reflects the will of the people and it serves their interests. Now whether the current format of proportional representation is the best way to achieve this is up for discussion, and I will touch on this in a minute. But however it is constituted, we have a sworn duty to make it work.

The first and most obvious step towards achieving this is letting go of the notion that we are enemies inside the House. We may be political opponents, but when we sit in those benches we are bound by a common goal. Our collective job is to find solutions – to put forward coherent arguments for the ideas we believe in, and to listen with open minds to ideas that may be at odds with ours.

We have a vibrant multi-party democracy in this country, and this is reflected in the benches of our Parliament. But we will not benefit from this plurality of ideas and voices if we cannot learn to reach across the aisle and find common ground.

I know such common ground won’t always exist – there are some issues on which we fundamentally disagree – but there is plenty we can agree on. And if we are to make Parliament work for the people, then we have to be open to cooperation.

I don’t need to tell you that Parliament has failed to live up to this standard in recent years. Sitting in the gallery, you have had front row seats. You have watched how the National Assembly descended into a daily circus of insults, disruptions and even violence. And you have seen, first-hand, the deep polarisation and paralysis of Parliament that this has caused.

How do you explain this to ordinary South Africans who see these ugly scenes on TV? They know that members of the House are paid well to do a crucial job, but all they see is grandstanding and insults. It is little wonder that voters are increasingly losing faith in the democratic process.

We need to turn this around in this Sixth Parliament. We need to re-establish Parliament as a place of big ideas, vigorous debate and service to the people of this country.

Every single one of the 400 members of Parliament stood up in the front of the House and swore to uphold their duty, as set out in the Constitution. We need to be held to that oath.

That Constitutional duty has two components to it. One is to pass legislation that enables all South Africans to live a better life. This is what most people have in mind when they think of the role of Parliament. But there is another equally important function, and that is its role in exercising oversight over the Executive.

We have all seen, over the course of the Fourth and Fifth Parliaments, what happens when Parliament abdicates its responsibility to hold the executive arm of government to account: Our state falls into the hands of the highest bidder.

A full picture of the damage inflicted on our country through state capture has not yet emerged, and it will take generations to undo. But all of this could have been prevented had Parliament simply done its job.

This Sixth Parliament needs to find and show its teeth again. It needs to go from lapdog to watchdog.

Part of the challenge is that the Executive is chosen from within Parliament, which makes those cabinet members responsible for their own oversight. But this challenge can be overcome by a number of interventions.

Firstly, we need to introduce an oversight standing committee on the Presidency right away. It is the only department that has no such an oversight committee and is therefore allowed to operate without any scrutiny.

South African citizens deserve better than this. If we want to preach equality before the law as one of our foundational principles of democracy, then this must extend to the executive arm of government too.

In addition to this, there are a number of interventions proposed by the DA over the years which will undoubtedly enhance oversight and accountability, and which need to be reconsidered.

The first and most important of these goes to the very heart of accountability in government. It involves changing our electoral system from pure proportional representation to a hybrid system where some seats are awarded on proportional representation, and some are elected directly by voters.

The problem with the current system is that MPs don’t answer to anyone except their own party, and this has removed all accountability from Parliament. A purely constituency-based system, while far more accountable, wouldn’t be ideal either because small parties would be crowded out. The answer lies in a hybrid system, where there is both accurate representation of the vote and a degree of direct accountability to voters.

The DA put forward such a hybrid electoral system several years ago. It is now more urgent than ever that we relook this system and introduce real accountability for the people of South Africa.

Another DA bill that would enhance Parliament’s watchdog capabilities is the Public Finance Management Amendment Bill which we tabled last year. This bill will ensure real-time reports to Parliament of all the government guarantees that are issued, as well as those that are declined by the Minister of Finance.

We are in the process of drafting a number of other bills specifically aimed at strengthening oversight and building an accountable and capable state. If this Sixth Parliament is serious about getting its teeth back, it must give these bills due consideration.

When it comes to passing legislation, this Sixth Parliament must rally behind the only agenda that matters to our country right now, and that is growth. The only way to tackle poverty, inequality, unemployment and debt is through sustained economic growth.

If what we do inside the House does not contribute to this growth, then we’re doing the wrong thing.

There is no time left to debate whether this should be the top priority or not. Every day we are sinking further and further into debt. We are borrowing a billion Rand a day and we are spending most of this money on things that will not give us any kind of return.

Most of this will be have to be repaid by our children, and they will see nothing for it. We are maxing out their credit cards before they’re even old enough to own them.

If we don’t halt this slide immediately, it will lead to enormous misery and despair for millions of South African citizens. Critical budgets like education, healthcare, housing, social welfare, service delivery and infrastructure maintenance will all take a hit, and poor people will be the first to feel this.

Ten years ago our national debt sat at 30% of GDP. Today it is almost 60% of GDP, and Treasury expects this to climb to 80% by 2028.

If we were incurring all this debt to invest in infrastructure, or to spend on things like education, there would be sense in it. But instead we are borrowing this money to pay the salaries of a massively-inflated management level in the public sector, and to bail out already-failed state-owned companies.

We have a responsibility, in Parliament, to heed the warning signs and to take action. The legislation we pass in the House can make fundamental changes to the way our economy operates. If we all unite behind the idea of prosperity through growth, we can change the path we’re on.

An example of this is the Cheaper Electricity Bill which we tabled earlier this year. It provides the legislative framework to lower the cost of electricity and boost the reliability of supply – both of which are critical to the performance of our economy.

This bill is to be debated soon by the Portfolio Committee. We have an opportunity to take one small step in the right direction by cooperating on a piece of legislation that is clearly in the interest of our country.

That’s how these things work – one step at a time. There is no single silver bullet that will transform our economy. There are many small yet critically important steps that we must take to get where we want to be.

Another such a step has to do with the Copyright Amendment Bill that has been lying on the President’s desk for the past six months. If he signs this into law in its current form, it will put at risk an estimated R12 billion in exports to the USA. This needs to go back to the Portfolio Committee to be rectified.

We have already been told that the US is reviewing our access to their preferential trade system thanks to the insufficient protection to intellectual property rights in this Bill. We know that they are about to pull the plug on a trade deal that secures billions in exports and thousands of jobs. With over 10 million unemployed here, we simply cannot afford not to act on this.

There are several other DA bills that were rejected in the Fifth Parliament, but which need to be reconsidered by this Sixth Parliament, if we are to take our responsibilities seriously.

One of these is the Labour Relations Amendment Bill. This bill sought to protect the public from violence and intimidation during strike action, as well as from malicious destruction of private property. It also sought to allow non-striking workers the freedom to go to work without intimidation or threats.

Another older DA bill that needs to be reconsidered is the Red Tape Impact Assessment Bill. This has already been adopted in the Western Cape and has made a huge impact on the ease of doing business in the province. Now let’s do the same nationally.

And yet another one is the Small Enterprises Ombud Service Bill. This bill was shot down on purely political grounds, despite the content of the Bill itself enjoying the support of the portfolio committee on Small Business.

We cannot continue to play these games of political one-upmanship in Parliament while our country sinks further into debt, poverty and unemployment. Our responsibility is to the people who voted us into Parliament, and not the parties who placed our names on their lists.

The only way Parliament will serve the people of South Africa is if we restore its functions of oversight and growth-enabling legislation. And this will require all 400 members of the House to remember their oath of office, and to remember who they work for.

That’s not the DA or the ANC or the EFF or any other party. MP’s work for the people of South Africa. They have been elected to Parliament to speak on behalf the people, and to protect ordinary citizens from abuse and neglect.

As Parliamentary Leader of the DA and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, I have made it my mission to help restore the dignity and decorum of this crucial institution of democracy, and to get it working again.

Let the legacy of the Sixth Parliament be one of cooperation across the aisle, of respect for the institution of Parliament, and of true service to the people of South Africa.

Thank you.

Issued by John Steenhuisen, DA Interim Leader, 21 November 2019