Parliament: SA needs a sharp-fanged watchdog, not a toothless lapdog
In the history of democratic South Africa, we’ve never needed Parliament more than we do now, nor found it more wanting. Our Constitution gives Parliament the duty and the power to hold public servants accountable to ensure that they act in the national interest and to bring them in line – or fire them – when they do not. In this, Parliament is failing miserably, with devastating consequences for South Africa. There is no simple solution to this problem. South Africa needs to develop a culture of accountability. The DA is leading this charge.
On Thursday last week, Parliament debated a Motion of No Confidence in Jacob Zuma. Our government has become a criminal syndicate headed up by a mafia boss. Our country is on hold and will not make progress until he is removed. The vast majority of Members of Parliament know without doubt that he is a huge liability to South Africa. And yet a majority – 214 out of 400 MPs – voted to retain Zuma as president.
Parliament scaled new heights of sycophancy during the Nkandla saga, going to embarrassing lengths to avoid holding the President to account. It fell to the DA and the EFF to take the matter beyond Parliament to the Constitutional Court, which delivered a hard-hitting judgment, ruling that Zuma violated the Constitution by refusing to comply with the Public Protector’s remedial action on the Nkandla saga – clear grounds for impeachment.
The ConCourt also ruled that members of Parliament violated the Constitution and their oath of office by failing to hold Zuma accountable for the spending on Nkandla. This did not stop Parliament from voting unanimously in support of Zuma in the impeachment debate that followed.
These are only the most high profile of a litany of such examples. The discord between what MPs know they should do, and what they actually do plays out on a daily basis. Parliament should be the country’s sharp-fanged watchdog. Instead, it is the government’s toothless lapdog. Rather than scrutinize government decisions and demand accountability, it acts as defender, protector and even cheerleader for government.
A bloated executive of some 70 cabinet members within the ANC’s parliamentary caucus is partially to blame. It naturally weakens Parliament when such a large portion of majority party MPs have divided loyalties, being members of both the legislature and the executive. In addition, the ANC’s parliamentary caucus is in disarray. This week, they couldn’t muster enough votes to pass the Division of Revenue Amendment Bill, despite ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu’s desperate appeals to his MPs to attend the session. The caucus is so internally divided, so dysfunctional, so disinterested and so poorly disciplined that they are not even capable of getting the basics right, which is simply to show up and vote in Parliament.
No wonder public officials treat it with utter contempt. This is nowhere more evident than in ‘question time’, when they hardly bother with even the vaguest of answers, and where the only detail to be found is in obfuscation. Public office bearers simply do not fear the consequences of their actions. This is why Justice Minister Michael Masutha had no problem announcing to the world that we are withdrawing from the International Criminal Court, without consulting Parliament. And why Communications Minister Faith Muthambi did nothing to stop Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s reappointment at the SABC.
The problem is that we have a situation where the members of the majority party in Parliament, the ANC, are caught in a deeply entrenched patronage system, which fatally compromises their ability to act with independence against the government. Too much is personally at stake. This is aggravated by our proportional representation electoral system which gives the party full power to appoint and remove individual members of Parliament. Any MPs who step out of line will not only lose their jobs, but risk prosecution for their part in the corruption.
What is to be done? There is no simple or single solution to this problem. Reforming our electoral system to one in which at least half of all MPs are elected directly by voters – as with our local elections – would certainly go some way to making Parliament more responsive to public interests. But even then, the pull of patronage can be overwhelming.
Parliament is the arena where our national conversation plays out. And, importantly, it is televised. So when ANC MPs renege on their duty to ensure that office bearers face the consequences, they do so in the public glare. Ultimately, if South Africans are to get the good government they deserve, they will have to teach public servants and MPs alike a lesson in accountability by voting the ANC out of government.
But South Africans, like parliamentarians, are yet to develop a strong culture of accountability. We’ve become inured to government actions without consequences. This is why it falls to opposition parties and civil society organisations to be unyielding in their determination to see office bearers face the consequences of their actions. And the DA is leading this charge. In Parliament, we are relentless in our pursuit of accountability, persistently modelling the culture of accountability that is deeply entrenched in more mature democracies.
And we take many of the battles beyond Parliament to the courts, engaging in “lawfare” to ensure that the judiciary can step in where Parliament fails, in order to bring accountability for the government’s larger failures. We do this not to see any particular individual suffer by losing his job or going to jail, but to show South Africans that no one is above the law, and that public servants must face the consequences of their actions. We do it in the hope that South Africans will follow suit, step in where Parliament has failed, and use their vote to punish those who fail to act in the national interest. There is no better way to grow the compliant lapdog into a vigilant watchdog.
This article by Mmusi Maimane first appeared in Bokamoso, the online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.