Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Weekly Newsletter to the Nation
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
Last week I focused on the role of members of parliament to make parliamentary democracy work, focusing on legislation drafting and accountability to constituents. This week, I would like to touch upon the responsibility of members of the executive (the branch of government responsible for the day-to-day management of the state) to be accountable to parliament and the wider public.
I am of the view that parliamentary democracy and the institutions which underpin it, are not in themselves self-sustaining. Democracy, by its nature, must be protected and promoted on a constant basis if it is not to wither. Democracy also, critically, requires its participants and institutions to play by the rules of the game. These rules are crisply laid out in the constitution (s56). Parliament, accordingly, ensures “that all executive organs of state in the national sphere of government are accountable to it” and that it “maintain(s) oversight of national executive authority”.
Parliament carries the burden of accountability for major organisations, including an array of the so-called “Chapter 9 institutions” of oversight – the Auditor General, the Public Protector, the Commission of Gender Equality, the Electoral Commission and the Independent Authority to Regulate Broadcasting.
Before turning to directly to the question of executive accountability, I would like to share a personal anecdote.
Earlier in the year, the Minister for Public Service and Administration, Ms Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, penned an opinion piece “the public service is not a job-creating entity for the ANC” (Cape Times, 8 February 2007). She wrote: “To state that the ‘ANC chose the path chosen by the National Party, which used the apparatus of the state as a sponge to mop up white unemployment and maintain political control’, is breathtaking in its inaccuracy. Laying out the rights and limitations to political service in the Public Service, the Minister elegantly stated, “it is incumbent upon me to uphold these values, and if I were not to do so, I would be subject to legal challenge”.
Emboldened by this reassurance, I wrote to the Minister on 26 February to express my anger at the purging of public servants in KwaZulu Natal because of their actual or alleged political allegiance to the IFP. I expressed my concern that public servants in KwaZulu Natal who closely work with IFP political representatives have been sidelined or forced to resign and that others had been told in unmistakable terms that they cannot hope for promotion. I asked the Minister for the Public Service Commission to investigate this matter.
To date, I have not received a letter of acknowledgement, let alone a reply. Leaving aside the fact that we once sat around the same cabinet table as colleagues, I would have thought that the letter written in my capacity as leader of the IFP would have merited a reply of some sort.
There was no attempt to verify or interrogate my claims. She failed, in her own words, “to uphold the values” pertaining to the rights and limitations to political service in the Public Service. Needless to say, her opinion piece in the Cape Times rings hollow.
Similarly, my successor as the Minister of Home Affairs, Ms Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, has also failed to respond to letters concerning constituent concerns that I have written to her this year. On the other hand, a substantive letter that I sent to the Minister of Education recently, elicited, to her credit, a swiftly arranged meeting.
This led me to wonder how difficult it must be for other members of parliament and members of the public to access ministers and senior civil servants and extract pertinent information. At least I can pass notes over the aisle, which I sometimes do on behalf of my constituents, making it very difficult for the minister to slip out without replying!
But you, dear reader, do not enjoy this advantage.
I should mention that there are several variables that need to be taken into consideration in the parliamentary process which renders parliamentary accountability in South Africa, to put it politely, uneven. These variables include the quality of the composition of the portfolio committee, the independence and capability of the committee chairperson, and, most importantly, the personal integrity of the minister. As I said last week, if members of parliament fail in their oversight role, the executive can practically govern by fiat. MPs are the strongest or the weakest link and they should be fearless and tireless in calling ministers to account.
I agree with the view that, alas, the daily work of parliament – in debates in parliament and in the hearing and reports of committees – has had little discernible impact upon the course of the executive. As I noted last week, legislation is very rarely amended on the floor of the House and not then as a result of amendments proposed by committees.
Most striking is the non- implementation of s77 of the constitution, which, unusually for a parliamentary democracy, gives parliament the right to amend money bills.
Yet as much as this reflects a failure of parliamentarians, it equally reveals a failure of ministers to fully interact with parliament as the constitution enjoins them to. Andrew Feinstein’s just published book ‘After the Party’ raises important questions about the accountability mechanisms of the executive to parliament. The arms deal riddle goes right to the heart of this matter. Will we ever get to the bottom of it?
I doubt it. Again, we are back to the problem I raised last week of ‘executive dominance’, which is a result of the overwhelming strength of the dominant party augmented by floor-crossing gains and the stick-and-carrot of cadre deployment.
As Professor Geoffrey Hawker joked in an academic paper, “it might be noted that all the ANC cabinet ministers and junior ministers who have not been elected to the NEC in recent years have been appointed to it as “observers”, from which this point of view, the extended meetings of the NEC are the only occasion at which all ministers in the National Assembly are likely to be found together!” But at the risk of over baking the soufflé, ‘executive dominance’ strengthens the case for the need for executive accountability, it does not weaken it.
I know the Democratic Alliance, to its credit, monitors the answers and responses of ministers to parliamentary written questions. Yet, I contend, this should be the role of parliament itself. As an independent institution, parliament itself should monitor the quality of answers by ministers, as well as the numbers of questions posed by MPs. As I wrote last week, when is parliament going to compel ministers to answer questions within ten days? When is the President going to compel his ministers to answer questions within ten days?
Above and beyond this there is a need to inculcate amongst ministers a sense that they are, to quote Tony Blair, the servants and the people are the masters. I deliberately used this much-hackneyed quote because I recall watching on Sky News when Mr Blair was prime minister how he once was subject to discomfiting cross-questioning by members of his own side at committee stage (because, remember, parliamentary accountability should supersede party allegiance) about Iraq and WMD (a good comparison to our arms deal saga). Some say he had to go long before he wanted to because he had pushed the envelope of executive dominance too far.
I do not have an opinion on that, but I draw the salutary lesson of how things can horribly go wrong when executive accountability to parliament falters. Without the bravery of former Chair of Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA), Gavin Woods MP and Andrew Feinstein, we probably would not know the limited information that we do about the infamous R5-billion arms deal.
I remain optimistic that a proper functioning relationship between the executive, parliament and the people can emerge out of the present leadership crisis. The very fact that the issues of executive accountability and strengthening parliament are being debated so fiercely demonstrates that South Africans care.
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP