Parliament Has a Chance to Put Its Oversight and Accountability Record Right

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BYLINE: Christi van der Westhuizen

The South African electorate has spoken and our fourth democratic Parliament has been installed. The choices voters made, as expressed in party representation in Parliament, have paved the way for an exciting five-year term ahead of us.

Voters' choices at the ballot box have reduced the ANC's preponderance, boosting the political competition of ideas in Parliament, which is good for democracy.

The most pertinent question is whether the incoming crop of parliamentarians - some new, some experienced - will have the commitment and the fearlessness to wield oversight powers as foreseen in our constitution.

A sign that we may see more contestation around this very issue is the increased diversity in opposition ranks, combined with the ANC's loss of the psychologically significant two-thirds majority.

The arrival of the Congress of the People in Parliament, along with the DA's success in growing its representation, should lead to a more vigorous challenge when the institution is misused to merely effect the executive's decisions without question.

Parliament is also due to benefit from the re-emergence of some old names with serious clout. The return of Max Sisulu (ANC) in the central post of Speaker can only benefit Parliament as an institution.

He was a member of the panel led by former ANC MP Pregs Govender that made invaluable proposals for the improvement of the institution earlier this year. Hopefully he will ensure that the panel's recommendations are taken on board.

The level of debate should change, if not improve, with the likes of Phillip Dexter and Mbhazima Shilowa (Cope); Dr Wilmot James (DA); and Dr Blade Nzimande and Dr Mathole Motshekga (ANC) - that is, as long as Parliament is not used as a platform to continue political squabbles rather than overseeing the implementation of policies.

The latter is the most urgent task ahead. It is accepted that Parliament has over the past 15 years mostly excelled in passing laws that capture the letter and spirit of the constitution. Its record in calling the executive to account in implementing these laws has, unfortunately, been far less exemplary.

The reorganisation of the cabinet in portfolios such as higher education and rural development suggests that the ruling party is approaching governance with renewed vigour. But the creation of a monitoring and evaluation ministry in the Presidency is not a sign for Parliament to cease its monitoring and evaluation.

Apart from the Govender report, new MPs should also set in motion the implementation of the Oversight and Accountability Model that was adopted by the previous Parliament's national assembly in February.

A few years ago the joint rules committee established a task team consisting of MPs to investigate the current constitutional and legal provisions and mechanisms that enable Parliament to exercise the responsibilities of oversight and accountability.

A model was born from that process which defines oversight as "entail(ing) the informal and formal, watchful, strategic and structured scrutiny exercised by legislatures in respect of the implementation of laws, the application of the budget, and the strict observance of statutes and the constitution. …