Analysis: Parliament is accountable to people of South-Africa

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By Ralph Mathekga

Parliament is an important institution in a democracy, an institution whose stability and coherence attests to the broader strengths of the state. One cannot imagine a functioning and accountable executive existing alongside a lethargic Parliament. Therefore, while the term of Parliament is coming to an end, it is necessary to cast an eye on its strength and stability. Answering this question would also give a glimpse as to what challenges may recur in the next term and where continuity might be experienced.

Political parties have submitted their lists of candidates who will be going to Parliament after the elections. The ANC and the DA, among others, have had their lists attracting attention. This is because the two parties have respectively been the most dominant in Parliament. Interesting also, is that the major squabbles that have ensued between political parties in Parliament have had the ANC squaring up against the DA. These are essential characteristics of a vibrant Parliament.

Most parties take Parliament seriously. The Constitution positions Parliament at the pinnacle of democracy where laws are made and accountability is exercised. The increasing focus on Parliament by opposition parties may have to do with the realisation that while those parties are not dominating the executive branch of government, they have an opportunity to be seen as significant stakeholders in South Africa’s democracy, by ensuring that accountability is emphasised in Parliament.

Parliament has subsequently become a critical stage for parties to amplify their respective political projects. This is juxtaposed with the idea of legislative oversight – a prerogative that belongs to Parliament.

The roles that state institutions such as Parliament are tasked to fulfil, are stated in the Constitution and ancillary rules and regulations. That said, experience often brings along certain practices that accumulate to form what is often referred to as institutional culture.

At times, the institutional culture can be contrary to the goals set out in the Constitution, while at times that institutional culture can be perfectly in line with the goals and objectives set out for the institution.

In the years leading up to the end of term of the fourth Parliament, an institutional culture has been emerging, where almost all rules of Parliament have been challenged. Perhaps it would be accurate to state that the fourth term of Parliament in South Africa has been very turbulent and has seen major tensions between political parties. The culture emerging with this term is such that rules of Parliament can result in court challenges on the interpretation of the rules.

This is not essentially a deplorable experience. As Parliament is evolving and living up to its Constitutional mandate, it becomes tempting for political parties to attempt to rewrite some of the rules.

Unchecked and without stronger presiding officers in Parliament, the process of testing rules by different political parties across the political divide might allow for emergence of an institutional culture that bring a greater sense of instability in Parliament.

The experience of the presiding officers in Parliament in the fourth term needs to be carefully interrogated. Political parties with experience would certainly benefit from inexperienced presiding officers in Parliament. What really happened in the fourth term of parliament and what could happen in the next term?

Both the speaker of the National Assembly and the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces are presiding officers with the responsibility to bring order in the manner in which political parties behave and interact in Parliament. The challenges facing Parliament cannot be addressed once and for all without harming its role as a place for ensuring openness and frank engagement. However, there is a need for Parliament to have stronger and more experienced presiding officers to put the political parties in line when need be.

Parliament is not there to serve the narrow partisan interests of political parties. Political parties have ample platforms to advance such interests. Parliament is there to serve the interests of the people and the presiding officers, thus the speaker of National Assembly and the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, should be able to strike that non-partisan line in discharging their responsibility.

Looking at the performance of the presiding officers in the fourth term of Parliament, it has been quite gathering and somehow has had challenges on the rules. Quite often, the speaker of Parliament has had to deal a tough hand to both the ANC and the DA.

The main question as the picture of the fifth term of Parliament is being painted is whether the presiding officers in charge will have all it takes to deal with increasingly tense relationships among different parties in the country.

Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst, founder and director at Clearcontent Research & Consulting

SOURCE: The New Age, April 9th 2014: http://www.thenewage.co.za/blogdetail.aspx?mid=186&blog_id=2999