First published at Daily Maverick: link
Amongst my mostly corporate and entrepreneurial social circle, my previous job in government was a source of some fascination and bemusement. But of all my duties in that life, being summoned to Cape Town to account to Parliament had to be one that seemed most other-worldly. The workings of the National Assembly, with its honourable members, whips and committees, are obscure. Channel 408, the Parliamentary Service, is not an eyeball magnet.
Lunching in Cape Town during one such trip, I could see that a friend was not only puzzled by my activities, but was rather uncomfortable with them. My generation, not born free but young enough for some to have grown up with access to the opportunities presented by post-Apartheid South Africa, occupy a quiet, apolitical space, mostly in the professions and in business. What kind of job required talking to politicians? My friend was rather frightened for me and for my career. His job and his life kept him a safe distance from the processes and rituals of democracy.
So I find myself encouraged by the spirited noises coming from the EFF with regards to its role in Parliament. The party is positioning itself as a voice for the young and disengaged in the hallowed halls of that institution. The EFF’s policy positions are not only polarising, but also seem oblivious to the past century’s economic history. But that should not cause us to overlook the sheer entrepreneurialism of the party. Imagine that a segment of a market is badly served by an unfocused and inefficient large conglomerate. A new entrant does not need to build a state-of-the-art product to steal away this segment. The smart thing to do is to build a product with just enough specifications to speak to the segments’ unmet needs and buoy it with slick branding and marketing. Until more compelling alternatives for the votes of the marginalised emerge, the EFF have taken up the gap to capture enough of the electoral share to become the third most important political force in Parliament.
Within the MP’s toolbox, a sharp one for getting quick and direct answers from government is the Parliamentary Question posed to ministers on the activities and policies of their departments and entities. Its basic formulation has not changed over a century and its power to rattle the most composed government bureaucrat is undiminished if somewhat underutilised. There are the now-routine questions asking departments and agencies how much they spent on their annual reports or year-end functions or placing advertisements in certain media houses. Then there are the ones that dig deeper and demand explanations for certain decisions taken by an agency, or updates on action plans. These acts of scrutiny have helped to expose extravagance and incompetence, or to give the executive a chance to trumpet its successes. I look forward to the EFF’s contribution to the art of the penetrating parliamentary question.
Parliament could be so much more than it is right now. It is the foundation of our democracy; the instrument through which the people govern the country. It can also be a dry, formal place where pomp and ceremony shields its under-performance and challenges. Parliamentary questions are not always answered properly. Legislation is sometimes rushed through, resulting in laws that are difficult to implement. Public participation and engagement is anaemic. If there is an institution dying for a revolution to place it back into the hands of the people, its rightful but disempowered owners, this is it.
Embattled as it is at the moment, the DA also returns to Parliament with more seats after a robust campaign. This should make for a stronger oversight body. As a party, The DA is experienced (though its future leaders in Parliament might not be) in navigating the legislative process and in scrutinising the work of the executive branch of government. But for all the DA’s effectiveness to date, it will be the EFF, with its reach and verve for communication that will bring the debates in the house to the centre stage and into our homes. Ideological inclinations aside, we will all benefit from the breadth of the EFF’s questions, from pointed questions about the use of certain attractive musicians at government functions to interrogations of mining policies.
With limited research capacity and a dominant ruling party, Parliament’s ability to guide and constrain ministers and their departments remains weak. Opposition parties will still need to rely on other platforms outside Parliament, including the courts and the Public Protector, to pursue aoutcomes that are best sought within the legislature. Nonetheless, as new voices and political parties enter Parliament, its relevance and visibility to the people it is meant to represent will be enhanced. Members of that august house will be forced to up their game. The sad sight of dozing members and empty chairs might become a thing of the past.