South Africa: Finding funds, and support, to expand Parliament

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Six months into his new post as secretary to Parliament, Gengezi Mgidlana is spearheading the expansion of the parliamentary precinct, an estimated R1.4 billion project, nine years in the making, which has ruffled plenty of feathers.

“Right now, we are still sitting there (at R1.4bn). The study was done five years ago, so obviously these figures are five years old, so they would need to be re-looked at. We are in a process of engaging National Treasury and Public Works,” Mgidlana said. "The way South Africa should look at this is that South Africa is investing in itself because it would not really be about Parliament. This is something for South Africa. Parliament is indeed open to all, meaning we can accommodate a large sector of South Africans.”

The decision to expand Parliament was announced during the national legislature’s Budget vote debate when Speaker Baleka Mbete announced a “space utilisation project” to find more office space, committee meeting venues and parking slots. In 2007, opposition parties cried foul when an architect’s model for expansion emerged. It included an office tower-block, banqueting hall and garage. In mid-2011, an office block across the road from Parliament was demolished; it is now a parking lot. Last year, the expansion project, including a 1 500-seater banqueting hall, again surfaced, sparking controversy as opposition parties claimed they had been left out of the loop. Plans were shelved but an announcement was made towards the end of last year.

Mgidlana must find the money for this. Space is tight and it costs R60 000 every time a committee sits outside Parliament, something that happens regularly when the national legislature is in full swing.

“We don’t want to have committee meetings in a hotel. It is rather clumsy for a country like ours to be operating like that,” he said.

The first steps towards an expanded parliamentary precinct are under way as the strategic vision of an “activist people’s Parliament” was launched this week. Exactly when the project would be completed, Mgidlana was reluctant to say. But he did say talk of moving the national legislature up north had been shelved.

Mgidlana found himself in the eye of the storm in February when a jammed signal delayed the State of the Nation Address. Later, EFF parliamentarians were removed by security forces. It was a “spectacular re-introduction” to working in a legislature, said the the former secretary to the Gauteng legislature, who before that did a five-year stint there as parliamentary operations director. He was appointed to Parliament in December, after serving from 2007 as deputy director-general in the presidency for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

At Parliament, Mgidlana is responsible for a R2bn budget.

“I wish it could be more,” he said. “Our budget is about 0.16 percent of the entire country’s budget. Our responsibility is overseeing that entire R1.3 trillion (national budget). I would argue, in many ways, we are doing more with less.”

The budget covers salaries, but also support services for parliamentarians – from tablets to airtime to travel – and constituency office allowances. It must stretch further as Parliament wants to ensure it can provide parliamentarians with what they need to better exercise their responsibilities.

“We are gearing ourselves up so that we pass more effective laws,” said Mgidlana, explaining how technology would play a key role. “We want to harness the use of technology in providing our business. We also want to involve the public more by harnessing what comes from the technology environment.”

SOURCE: IOL News, June 7th, 2015,