The EFF made people notice Parliament again. It gave citizens hope that the façade of dignified behaviour and rule-driven debate is tumbling down, writes Susan Booysen.
Johannesburg - Parliament seemed more connected with the people when the EFF aired its resentment about the Marikana massacre, a watershed event in its own right and a symbol of the distance between high and low politics. Yet, the lack of executive accountability to Parliament continues to mock any advances.
It is the elephant in the room, dwarfing the last two weeks’ battle to try to make the ANC more accountable in the highest legislative organ.
The ANC rules far beyond the representation of the DA and the EFF. It has no less than 62 percent of the National Assembly.
The ANC parliamentary caucus is under the strict discipline of the party’s top structures, the National Executive Committee and the Top Six (that is, the officials).
ANC parliamentarians barely have an independent voice and overwhelmingly aspire to none. They follow orders. They ask not what their executive, the cabinet and a host of intermingled structures have done. They ask only how to protect leaders against the opposition.
Rubber stamp is the name MPs have earned themselves. Executivism rules.
The only roughly unambiguous exception was the mini-Prague Spring of 2008-09. ANC MPs, liberated from Thabo Mbeki’s authoritarianism over the party, lined up to impress the rising power of then Zunami Zuma.
Foremost in their repertoire to impress their president-in-waiting was to challenge Mbeki’s executive.
Back to the present, important as June’s two weeks of occasional middle finger to parliamentary decorum and pretence of importance was, the real test for the EFF will be whether they can bring the cabinet, the deputy ministers, cabinet clusters, cabinet committees, interministerial committees and politically connected directors-general to heel before Parliament.
Can the EFF bring accountability where other opposition parties have failed and ANC MPs do not wish to go?
The ANC is not unique in sidelining Parliament.
But this is no excuse for the party, which anchors itself verbally in the Freedom Charter and the virtues of representation and accountability to the people. Jointly, the movement says, we must take South Africa forward.
The ANC might have realised that “the people” do not confer unconditional five-year mandates. Voting for the ANC does not equate with a vote for specific leaders; similarly, electoral endorsement does not confer high esteem on the ANC in Parliament.
Euphemistically, South African citizens do not respect their Parliament greatly. Research shows that voters will vote – and might well vote ANC – but see Parliament as a “circus”, a “gallery of the sleeping representatives”, a body lacking in substance and impact.
They have learnt that after elections many MPs disappear behind the mountains, to miraculously reappear with the next election when it is time to plead for votes.
In the past two weeks the EFF, a small opposition party with a big presence, made people notice Parliament again.
By all indications it gave citizens hope that the parliamentary façade of dignified behaviour and rule-driven debate is coming tumbling down.
They think Parliament has become interesting again.
The EFF’s Marikana massacre challenge to the ANC reminded citizens that truths can be spoken to the powers that be and that it hurts.
The EFF demonstrated that insistence on accountability (in the sense of exposing non-accountability of the holders of power) does not need a parliamentary majority.
Its members used the popular credibility they enjoy courtesy of their origins within the heart of the ANC, along with their attitude of speaking (blatant) truths to power, and the coverage that media afforded them.
Parliament is accountable, but it is an upward accountability of MPs to their executive. In turn, the cabinet and the related executive structures are upwardly accountable to the president and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, the trusted actual president?
The only chance of parliamentary accountability – MPs moving into a responsive relation to their constituents – for now will come if the questions and point of debate become such a public embarrassment, courtesy of the media relaying the details to a listening citizenry, that the important executive members take note and respond to the issues of public concern.
Yet, from experience we know that visibly taking note is not a strong point of the ANC as the government.
Rather, such as in the case of Nkandla, the party will find ways to use due parliamentary and government process (and, if possible at all, judicial processes) to dilute or derail penetrating or uncomfortable questions.
Mantashe, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa gave candid confirmation that the president (or his stand-in) is the one to be accounted to.
Ramaphosa recently reassured South Africans that executive members will have to give the president a detailed plan on how they intend executing their departmental mandates.
Virtually in the same breath, he acknowledged that while accountability moves up, the responsibility will be cascaded down.
Translated, it means that ministers will hardly be expected to fall on a sword for work not done.
When things go wrong, the buck is likely to stop with some or other relatively junior official. Think Nkandla. Think Guptagate. Think accountability in the time of Zuma.
Ramaphosa also worked at persuading South Africans that the executive has turned a page.
He recognised accountability problems in the previous administration. Now, he reasoned, we have the new, fifth administration. Watch this space. Things are going to be different.
The first difference was already evident in the ministers in new portfolios and with bated breath promising they would “hit the ground running”.
Two weeks later, we know that this means their departments may be up and running by the end of the year. First, territorial lines are to be drawn and departmental nests feathered.
Will the additional interministerial committees (IMCs) that sprung up in Zuma’s State of the Nation address bring evidence of serious top-level attention to the problems of the revitalisation of distressed mining communities, or of service delivery? (The IMCs report to the cabinet via cabinet committees; the latter also give oversight and co-ordination.)
Jeff Radebe and Pravin Gordhan will head IMC-status mini-cabinets.
From experience, we know IMCs could be good news about getting things done; they could also divert accountability. There was an IMC (task team) on Nkandla. It set the scene for a whitewash of security excesses. The IMC on the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project recommended the implementation of e-tolls. The IMC on this year’s presidential inauguration visited protest hot spots and, with the previous security cluster, brought security force deployment to suppress protest and deliver interruption-free elections.
The battle lines of openness and accountability versus controlled information and projection of preferred self-images (propaganda) are being redrawn.
Local elections are looming and the ANC is in a fragile electoral space. Substantial electoral margins could be watered down as the Fourth and Fifth Estate – the media as well as social media and pundit bloggers – transmit alternatives that resonate with smaller parties, if these parties strike a popular chord of their own.
The EFF, antics, absurdities and all, does this.
The ANC would do well to moderate its executivism and upward accountability.
Imagine the political world in which the ANC instructs its legislators to do significant hours on the ground and in their communities, visibly and rapidly dealing with needs, grievances and government shortcomings and submit evidence that they do.
This world may lose MPs who worry about cobblestones outside Parliament damaging fancy shoes. It could also be a world in which the ANC retains popular trust.