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.