Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Weekly Newsletter to the Nation
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
Since 2004, I have lamented the inexorable centralisation of power in South Africa in the executive (read presidency here) and have called for Parliament’s policy oversight role to be strengthened. Unless we do so, I believe, we are in danger of becoming an "elective dictatorship". The term, incidentally, was coined by the late Lord Hailsham in Britain in 1976.
The natty term has since entered into the political science lexicon as describing the state in which Parliament is dominated by the government of the day. An even more pertinent definition to the South African context is "executive dominance". Both definitions amount to the same thing: It refers to the fact that the legislative programme of Parliament is determined by the government, and government bills always pass because of the nature of the governing party’s majority.
At this point one must be fair. The ANC have won the last three elections and they won them big. It is naturally appropriate that the ruling party pursue their legislative agenda in accordance with their stated objective to provide "a better life for all". Yet, does this mean that opposition members and, yes, ANC members, should not seek to formulate legislation themselves within the ambit of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Since 1994, only a few private members bills succeeded before the turn of the century. By contrast, eight private members bills were passed in the UK ranging from the Knives Act 1997 to the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 to the Sustainable Communities Act 2006. As you can see, these are varied issues and are not directly related to the machinery of governance. Comparisons with other Commonwealth parliamentary democracies yield a similar result.
This suggests to me that SA parliamentarians are too timid in expressing their constituents’ concerns, particularly those that are not directly related to the architecture of government. I mean subjects like diabetes, neighbourhood policing, removing the barriers to home ownership and teenage obesity. These are just a few random current public policy issues in SA which I would have thought members might have developed a personal interest or expertise in. Is government legislation so comprehensive that it only needs finessing at committee stage? Are there no gaps in public policy making which MP’s could help fill?
I myself have tabled a private members bill which directly relates to the architecture of government which was influenced, in part, by my own observations as a cabinet minister as well as the current political dynamics.My bill, calls for, amongst other things, the establishment of the Office of a State President and that of a Prime Minister who will be Head of Government.
Interestingly, the Sunday Times revealed that the ANC Secretary General had the same idea as me after I proposed the bill. I also understand that the Chairperson of the Select Committee on Private Members Legislative Proposals, Ms Vytjie is persuaded that there could be merit in the proposals contained in my bill. It has not, however, moved very far yet.
One of the positive spin offs of my proposed bill would likely be a more exertive parliament with a prime minister, as in most other parliamentary democracies, who would be more accountable to it.
On a sad note, for me one of the moments that stands out from this past year is Minister Trevor Manuel’s accusation to the Legislative Authority that there is no effective oversight over the executive. Both my Party and the DA have pointed out that President Mbeki has not answered a number of questions put to him in Parliament.
The President sets the example for Ministers, MPs and the country and – by not answering questions – he is setting a poor example of work ethic and responsibility. I do wonder whether the President is aware of the situation or if the problem lies with his staff. But ultimately, the buck stops with the President.
On the matter of work ethic, I must add that people should not be overly concerned when they see few members sitting in the House. MPs serve on around 50 parliamentary committees. One must also remember that the Legislative Assembly has a constituency role and MPs spend (or should be spending) a good deal of time caring for the needs of their constituents.
I have always been fascinated by how prime ministers in parliamentary democracies have to develop a thorough understanding of issues that are important to members. They could be asked about a hospital, factory or school in any given constituency by an exertive MP. And that is what I hope to see in 2008, irrespective of which candidate emerges as leader of the ruling party in Polokwane next month: a more exertive and confident parliament.
I would also like to add a few suggestions of how Parliament could strengthen its representation role to bridge the democratic deficit between members and constituents.
i. Establish an electronic MP locator;
ii. Teach MP’s how to write crisp parliamentary questions and present petitions on behalf of constituents;
iii. Compel Ministers to answer the questions within ten days;
iv. Compel MP’s to hold weekly ‘surgeries’ in their demarked constituency. This surgery should be in a conveniently located place where local people can bring their problems;
v. A full and transparent annual publication by each political party of how they spend their constituency allocation from the IEC;
vi. Every party represented at Parliament should have a staffer at Parliament and in every constituency to book constituent appointments. The non-political nature of this role must be inculcated amongst MP’s and constituents alike;
vii. Members of Parliament telephone numbers should be listed in telephone directories; and,
viii. Ensure that the Parliamentary Ombudsmen tackles cases of Member’s maladministration.
I can think of some more ideas, but these would be a start in the right direction to prevent the slide to an "elective dictatorship". Next week, drawing on my experience as a cabinet minister, I will write on the onus of the executive to uphold the rules of parliamentary democracy.
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP