It seems an opportune time to comment on Parliament. After all, the very foundation of its colonial decorum is being questioned by many, and it has recently done little to indicate the integrity, efficacy and ethics that one would expect from the arm of government tasked with oversight.
Our President, it seems, can be both lawless and celebrated by ‘honourable’ members in the plenary, and we the public are supposed to sit back whilst our tax and VAT are spent on refurbishments rather than services. When things get too sensitive, Parliament is simply put on hold, while the party asking the real and only question the nation wants the President to answer is thrown out.
But there is more to the working of Parliament than just the plenary. The plenary is, around the world, an opportunity for grandstanding and heckling. The work of Parliament happens in Parliamentary Committee meetings. It is here that legislation is debated, that oversight is proposed and undertaken, that opportunities for public participation are facilitated, and that ‘cooperative governance’ (as yet unsuccessful) is considered. So what does it mean when the number of committees is cut, whilst the number of Departments they are required to oversee grows? This question is particularly pertinent for the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), where the number of Committees stands at a paltry eleven.
Perhaps it’s worth clarifying what the focus of the NCOP should be. As the Council of Provinces, the focus is essentially provincial. Yes, national budgets and legislation are (or should be) considered there, but when it comes to oversight and public participation, the focus is clearly on the nine individual provinces. This is important because much of South Africa’s spending happens at this level, and even more so at the municipal level.
Consider the budget of the Department for Social Development, for example. This money is dispersed to provincial Departments, who can pick and choose the areas they spend on defined, purportedly, by provincial interests. Social Development is responsible for a number of things via their funding of NGOs – shelters, drug and alcohol abuse programs, social workers in the province, Thuthuzela Care Centres, children’s rights, the rights of people with disability, and support for the many abused women in South Africa. But what happens when these critical areas do not receive sufficient funding? What happens when Parliament doesn’t notice? What happens when it has been redesigned not to notice?
Perhaps that sounds very conspiratorial – a grand government scheme to get away with things. But when you consider that the Portfolio Committee on Social Development only considers social development issues, and the Select Committee on Social Services considers issues of social development, health, human settlements, home affairs, and water and sanitation, then you have to ask, how is the Committee supposed to adequately or regularly check whether the DSD is adequately funding NGOs? The truthful answer is it can’t. And if the Portfolio Committee doesn’t get around to it, then NGO funding doesn’t get checked at all.
The same could be said for women’s issues. At a Portfolio Committee level there is the Portfolio Committee on Women in the Presidency. This committee is tasked with oversight over the Department of Women in the Presidency, which to date has not clarified what it is that they will actually be doing. Their website still speaks to issues of children and disability, hangovers from the previous department. They don’t know what their budgetary allocation will be for this year. Even when they are called before the Committee, they can’t answer. So the work of that Committee is focussed on clarifying the role and responsibilities of the Department of Women in the Presidency, and on hearing from the Commission for Gender Equality. What happens then when women on the ground, the 27 plus million women in South Africa, are not receiving services appropriate to their needs?
The task of looking at what is happening at the provincial level would fall to the Select Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. Yes, you read that right. This Committee, like the previous one mentioned, is tasked with being an oversight giant. Issues that fall under the mandate of this committee include cooperative governance, traditional affairs, public services and administration, youth, women, and intergovernmental relations. You’ll notice that local government falls in there – which means that every time there is a municipality in crisis it is this committee that must respond. What does that mean for the rights of women? When will those be considered to be in crisis?
The new configuration of committees in the National Council of Provinces has severely hindered the ability of Parliament to support and further women’s rights, or to consider the needs of the numerous NGOs that fund them. The revised structure makes it impossible to adequately fulfil its task as the institution guarding democracy. We should all be very concerned.