A BRAND NEW SMART CITY, MR PRESIDENT? REALLY?

This article appeared in the 26 June edition of Legalbrief Today, under Policy Watch

Image result for urban poverty south africa
This is not a South African city – nor even a smart one, since it does nothing to address the issue of urban poverty and slums. The point being that smart cities do not and never will solve those problems … especially in a developing country.

The increasingly dismal state of local government finances and the worrying attitudes of many of the senior officials responsible may have prompted President Cyril Ramaphosa to qualify his remarks in last week’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) about building a smart city. Responding to a debate on the contents of his speech, the President said the notion belonged more ‘in the section on a future and desired reality’ than in the ‘section on dreams’. This is noting that, even if urbanisation and population growth rates remain their present levels, within the next decade ‘an extra 10m people’ will be looking for work and somewhere to live in SA’s cities.

According to the President, each ‘successive wave of people’ arriving in the country’s major urban areas lives further from their centres, services, transport infrastructure and any available jobs. ‘This situation is not sustainable and, unless we find effective solutions, it’s only going to get worse,’ he warned, reminding his audience of the ‘significant backlogs in housing, schools, clinics and social services’ faced by ‘almost all’ the country’s cities. This presented a perfect opportunity for Ramaphosa to elaborate on any plans he and his government may have for finally and decisively addressing the myriad challenges facing SA’s local authorities, including the culture of non-payment for services. After all, the President made it very clear during last week’s Sona that ‘the days of boycotting payment are over’. But alas, nothing more was said on the matter – at least in the official version of Ramaphosa’s response.

Meanwhile, Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu was busy painting a deeply depressing picture of local government in which he conceded that ‘the quality of the financial statements provided to his office for auditing’ continues to deteriorate (News24). Especially troubling is that the ‘audit environment’ is becoming ‘more hostile’ (News24), with municipal authorities often pressurising audit teams to ‘change’ any findings pointing to negative audit outcomes or irregular expenditure. ‘Threats’ and ‘intimidation’ are apparently being experienced in ‘most’ provinces.

It is not clear from media reports on yesterday’s debate and the President’s input if any opposition party MPs asked how government intends financing the construction of a new ‘smart city’ – and how it will be maintained once built. Poor infrastructure maintenance has been a concern for many years, as successive Ministers of Finance, Public Works and Cooperative Governance have openly acknowledged. Ramaphosa would do well to confront this issue and the shockingly high levels of financial mismanagement across local government before saying anything more about a new smart city – which will need smart people to run it.

PARLIAMENT’S ‘CAPACITY PROBLEMS’ TO BE EXPOSED?

This article appeared in the 13 June edition of Legalbrief Today, under Policy Watch

The capacity of National Assembly committees to adequately hold the executive and state institutions to account is finally being brought to the attention of ordinary South Africans in the context of the commission of inquiry into state capture. This is noting recent allegations that SA’s fifth democratic Parliament failed to ‘prevent the looting of tax payers’ money’ despite having been alerted by ‘senior’ South African Reserve Bank officials to ‘cases’ of money laundering clearly requiring ‘urgent’ prosecution (SABC News). Commission chair Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo has confirmed that ‘part of his job’ is to ‘establish a task team to assess how Parliament’s oversight structures dealt with issues of state capture, and whether there were elements of … (it) within portfolio committees’ ( Fin24).

Zondo’s pronouncements on the ‘capacity problems’ possibly experienced by National Assembly committees during the country’s fifth democratic Parliament (SABC News) have drawn attention to a long-standing concern about the quality of administrative support. By way of example, it may take weeks for the minutes of a meeting to be produced and approved – leaving committee members and interested stakeholders dependent on recordings and reports made available by the Parliamentary Monitoring Group. It is not uncommon for several sets of long-overdue minutes to be read and adopted during a meeting with a packed agenda involving other pressing and often far more complex matters. In such circumstances, is it reasonable to expect members to remember with any degree of accuracy what was discussed and decided weeks before? What becomes of any action items identified during a meeting is anybody’s guess.

Against that backdrop, it is frequently left to departmental officials or parliamentary legal advisers to tactfully remind committee members of information made available to them on which decisions have already been made. That said, documents sent to a committee secretary well before the meeting at which they are to be considered may only be circulated the evening before. It has even been known for them not to be circulated at all – just as it is not uncommon for departmental officials to table documents at the very meeting convened explicitly to discuss them. Yet despite members’ obvious unfamiliarity with the contents of such documents, the process continues. This is especially worrying in the case of proposed new legislation. Combined with an apparent lack of commitment on the part of many MPs to study documents that are made available timeously, this level of inefficiency leaves many observers wondering if the ‘engine rooms’ of Parliament are working. Perhaps Zondo’s task team will uncover more ‘capacity problems’ than can be dealt with by the commission itself.

PARLIAMENT BEGINS WORK ON NEW COMMITTEE STRUCTURES

This article appeared in the 4 June edition of Legalbrief Today, under Policy Watch

The ‘naming and composition’ of Parliament’s new National Assembly committees is expected to be discussed tomorrow at a meeting of the House Rules Committee, when the process of assigning MPs to these and ‘various other bodies’ could also begin. According to a media statement released yesterday, a joint meeting of the National Assembly and NCOP programme committees will follow, focusing on matters related to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address on 20 June, the ensuing debate and the President’s reply. Once the dates for debates in both Houses on other ‘key issues’ have been identified, the programme committee of each House will finalise its ‘law-making and oversight’ schedule for the remainder of the year.

Meanwhile, an ongoing MPs’ induction programme will include ‘information and discussion sessions’ on their constitutional mandate and responsibilities, ‘interests, ethics and code of conduct’, and ‘participation’ in National Assembly and NCOP plenary sittings and committee meetings. It will also deal with the parliamentary budget office, law making and public participation, security on the parliamentary precinct, relations with the media and MPs’ ‘facilities and benefits’. Given the poor attendance record of most members of SA’s fifth democratic Parliament and their apparent reluctance to familiarise themselves with the nuts and bolts of many Bills before them, something is hopefully being done to avoid a repeat performance.

In theory, responsibility for such matters lies with party whips whom – yesterday’s statement notes – not only ‘assist in organising party business’ but are also expected to ensure that party representatives ‘attend committee meetings and debates in the House’. While it is not clear from the statement what is meant by ‘parliamentary business’, party whips are required to keep MPs suitably informed. Last year, when things fell apart in the National Assembly’s Trade and Industry Committee as it attempted to come to grips with the Copyright Amendment Bill, an ANC whip was brought in. Sadly, this made no difference whatsoever to the quality of input from committee members during ensuing deliberations. Perhaps tomorrow’s meeting of National Assembly chief whips will mark the beginning of a new era of well-informed, robust committee discussions?