Organisations set agenda with demands for 6th Parliament

A group of civil society organisations recently came up with a mixed bag of demands for Parliament, ranging from improving the institutional health and culture of the parliamentary administration to ongoing ethics training of MPs during their term.

Organisations including the Right2Know Campaign, Women of Farms Project, My Vote Counts, Parliamentary Monitoring Group and the Public Affairs Research Institute partook in the dialogue last month in Cape Town to set an agenda for the 6th Parliament. This follows the organisation Parliament Watch’s submission earlier this year of its monitoring report and scorecard on parliamentary committee performance. The report and scorecard found some worrying signs on how parliamentary committees conduct oversight. Closed meetings or meetings held during lunch time away from the public eye were flagged as a concern. The dialogue also follows recent concerns raised by Judge Raymond Zondo on the effectiveness of Parliament’s oversight role, given the extent of state capture revealed in state-owned enterprises.

 

Right2Know’s deputy national coordinator, Ghalib Galant, said the legislative framework governing Parliament is a good place to start. “What are the legislative framework amendments we want to see in relation to Parliament? Parliament is a unique creature that sits outside of legislation like the PFMA (Public Finance Management Act) and a whole range of other structures. We want an independent legislature, but is the legal framework enough to deal with that?” 

Galant noted that the structures and institutions that must enforce this legal framework need to be strengthened. He also said the structural and internal health of Parliament’s administration needs to be addressed and the relationship between politicians, parliamentary staff and the public have to be clear.

Other participants raised concerns over how equipped MPs are and how well they understand their role. Legal researcher at Open Secrets, Naushina Rahim, said there needs to be ongoing ethics training during MPs’ term, paired with similar training at their party headquarters so that there is consistency across decision-making structures.

One of Parliament Watch’s monitors, Sizwe Manqele, noted concern over the disconnect MPs often display with the people they represent. This was also echoed by other monitors from the Women on Farms Project, who observed this in how the Portfolio Committee on Social Development handled the social grants crisis. Said Manqele: “It is as if MPs see Parliament as a palace of thrones, where every five years a group of 400 take up thrones but are so distanced from the reality many people face.” 

Parliament Watch Project Coordinator at the Women and Democracy Initiative, Vivienne Mentor-Lalu, also noted many monitors expect MPs to be approachable, yet their experiences from monitoring committee meetings are of many MPs often being distant, aloof and unapproachable. There was a call for better monitoring of constituency offices and how they are used, since these offices are important to build connections between people and their public representatives. Some participants raised concerns that often these offices are used for party-political ends and because constituency offices are funded by public money, it should be closely watched.

Social Justice Coalition Researcher Khadija Bawa said stricter requirements are needed on what can disqualify a person from being an MP before they reach Parliament, especially given the calibre of MPs set to chair parliamentary committees. Some participants recommended the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) should play a bigger role in sifting candidates that political parties field for public office. Others, like Manqele, called for all committee meetings to be live-streamed on platforms like YouTube to make it more accessible to the public. Some of the attendees felt that a legislative review of legislation governing Parliament is needed and that a structure that is the equivalent to the Public Service Commission may be useful to oversee Parliament’s administration.

Mentor-Lalu said the issues raised and calls made during the dialogue will inform the agenda and demands the civil society organisations will submit soon to Parliament. Similar dialogues on Provincial Legislatures will also be held in provinces like the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape.

 

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