I was dismayed when the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) used Twitter to draw attention to a ‘snapshot of legislative activity’ in SA’s fifth democratic Parliament that completely ignored the quality of the Bills concerned. Published by the People’s Assembly but attributed to a PMG researcher, it compares the percentage of Bills tabled and ‘successfully adopted’ by South Africa’s fourth and fifth democratic Parliaments – concluding that the ‘efficiency’ of the process dropped from 87% in the fourth Parliament to 65% during the Parliament that has just ended. It then categorises Bills introduced during the fifth Parliament into those tabled by the executive (Ministers), those developed and introduced by committees and those developed and tabled by individual MPs.
Disappointingly, nothing more is offered – yet the data cries out for further analysis. Which committees handle the most Bills and are therefore under the greatest pressure given time constraints associated with the end of each recess for constituency work, the end of each year when Parliament rises for the festive season – and, of course, the end of each term when Parliament is dissolved before a general election? Which committees process the least number of Bills and what do their members do during the spare time presumably available? How long does it take for highly technical amendment Bills to be processed? Why do National Council of Provinces committees spend less time on ordinary section 75 Bills than they do on those requiring input from the provincial legislatures – especially when the public participation process of a section 75 Bill before an NCOP committee is so vitally important in helping MPs to understand the issues?
I could go on.
In a parliamentary democracy where the ruling party occupies more than 50% of available seats and the leading opposition less than half of those remaining, ruling party MPs have no reason to do their homework. At committee level, they push the policy position underpinning a Bill regardless of warnings from opposition parties of its broader implications and often unforeseen, unintended consequences. Begging the question, ‘Do they really care?’. Sadly, I believe not.
When I was an activist and learning the ropes from leaders of the black consciousness movement, black pride and black excellence were big issues. Yet they are compromised by most of ‘our’ MPs during every committee meeting I observe, when the level of ignorance of topics under discussion is on display for all to see. It is deeply humiliating and simply reinforces negative perceptions about the ability of African people to govern. Which may sound harsh, but it’s true. I am ashamed of the vast majority of ‘our’ MPs. They’re sent on orientation courses and training programmes and workshops and trips to developed countries to learn how things are done – yet they are consistently absent from meetings, hardly contribute when they do attend, rarely have anything worthwhile to say and are generally more interested in replenishing their plates of finger snacks and hot lunches than ‘applying their minds’ (as the ANC’s Joan Fubbs regularly reminded them to do when she chaired the National Assembly’s Trade and Industry Committee).
And, as tax payers, we pay for this! Are we crazy or what?