Comment: Parliament Watch reflections on monitoring Parliament

Navigating Parliament and access to information can at times be difficult for ordinary citizens. The past week was no exception for members of the Parliament Watch (ParlyWatch) collective who monitors these parliamentary meetings. Although the blockages are not official, the systems and ways of getting access to information and committees are becoming more and more hidden, changeable and closed,writes Sam Waterhouse

The Women and Democracy Initiative (WDI) has worked with partners from Parliament Watch (Parly Watch) to increase civil society activists access to and monitoring of committees in the legislatures. The legislatures are supposed to be a public forum, where elected representatives hold the executive to account on service delivery to the public. Monitors are as interested in the performance of elected representatives and the legislatures on their mandates to be open and accessibly to the public, to be independent, and to be responsive to the public and public input as they are interested in the issues that legislatures must exercise their oversight functions on. The issues that Parly Watch members are following includes police resourcing, school infrastructure, the investigations into Eskom and SASSA, the labour rights of farm women and many others.

Parliament has been extremely busy over these past two weeks, committees have been looking into the performance of departments over the last year and preparing recommendations to departments, some are working on the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement which looks at South Africa’s economic context for next year’s budget and gives a picture of governments spending priorities for the next three years, other committees have held meetings to question some aspects of state capture and corruption. Because of the current political situation it has become a much more complicated space than it was a year or so ago. Depending on the issues being discussed and the people in the room, different committees and different members in committees representing the range of political parties sometimes perform in unexpected ways.

Parly Watch has struggled to get the information we need, on time, to ensure that activists and members of partner organisations can be present in committees when these important discussions about issues that affect the majority of the public take place. Often we receive information about meetings only two days before the actual meeting, sometimes information on meetings for the next day is only made available on the afternoon of the day before. That’s what happened with the first meeting that was held to find out what the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) has done to make sure that they have a legal service provider to distribute social grants from next year. Notice of the meeting for Tuesday 24 October was only sent out after four pm the day before. Without good information, on time, Parly Watch and members of the public cannot monitor or participate in these processes.

Some of the Parly Watch members come from outside of the city and travel is expensive and takes time and planning to enable them to get to Parliament. We were lucky that the DSTV parliament channel broadcast the SASSA meeting on Tuesday evening, it meant that people who could access DSTV were able to watch the meeting. But many of our members do not have DSTV, some could go to a neighbour but many others could not. Also not all meetings are even broadcast on the DSTV channel.

The SASSA meeting was the meeting that Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini didn’t bother to attend even though she’d been asked to by the committee. However unlike previous meetings with the Minister of Social Development, this meeting was not only with the Portfolio Committee on Social Development, it was a joint meeting with the Select Committee on Public Accounts (SCoPA).  SCoPA is a much stronger committee, the only one that is not chaired by an ANC member, but instead it is chaired by Themba Godi from the African People’s Convention (APC). With SCoPA in the room, the members pushed harder for the Minister to be present and in the meetings that followed on 31 October and 01 November, members were stronger in demanding that the Minister and SASSA be accountable and put a working plan for paying grants on the table.

Parly Watch monitors also faced the problem of not being able to get into the rooms where the meetings were taking place, in some cases venues were changed at last minute. In the case of the Police Crime Statistics briefing, the Police Committee held the meeting in a very small room. Parly Watch thinks that it was deliberate to choose a small venue, in past years there is always a large amount of public presence during the briefing on crime stats, in 2016 the briefing was held in a large auditorium, Parly Watch members thing that this was a strategy to limit public knowledge about the state’s weak responses to crime and violence. Often the Parly Watch members couldn’t get copies of the documents that were being discussed, without the documents it is very difficult to make sense of the discussions that are taking place.

One of the Parly Watch member organisations, the Women on Farms Project, provided the Portfolio Committee on Labour with copies of their report that looked into the working conditions of women on farms, and asked for a chance to present the findings to the committee. Although the committee chair said that the committee would be interested in discussing the report, she then went on to give a whole list of reasons why it could not be discussed in the committee without first going through various channels through Parliament. This is unusual, in the past many organisations have been able to approach different committees for research that is relevant to the work of the committee to be discussed.

Overall, Parly Watch members are finding many obstacles to participating in committees and to their efforts to try to provide committees with information on important issues. Although the blockages are not official, the systems and ways of getting access to information and committees are becoming more and more hidden, changeable and closed. It is encouraging that Parly Watch members are seeing that committee members, mainly from opposition parties and sometimes from the ANC, are trying to hold the executive to account on these important issues. But, time and time again it is undermined because decisions are taken by the ruling party leadership outside of the committee rooms of Parliament.

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