As long as members of the South African Parliament are selected by – and answerable to – their parties rather than the voters, there will be limited public accountability. So argue two researchers in law in a chapter of a new book on the role of political parties in democratic South Africa. Their insights throw new light on the failure of the recent vote of no confidence in the president and efforts to hold him to account for Nkandla.
South Africa may have gained a ʻpeople’s Parliament’ in 1994, which represented a decisive break from the long years of oppression and illegitimacy, but the legislature often fails to live up to its critical task of holding the executive to account.
This is exacerbated by the dominance of a ruling party for whose members of Parliament (MPs) there is little incentive to adopt independent or critical postures on policy or the conduct of the president or ministers in the Cabinet. The costs of doing so can be high, and without electoral reform that guarantees direct accountability to voters, this is unlikely to change.
This is the key thrust of a collaboration between UCT Professor of Public Law Danwood Chirwa and law lecturer Phindile Ntliziywana in their chapter “Political parties and their capacity to provide parliamentary oversight” in a recent publication, Political Parties in South Africa: do they undermine or underpin democracy?
Chirwa and Ntliziywana acknowledge the development of oversight mechanisms and fundamental shifts in improving accountability since 1994 – from opening parliamentary committee proceedings to the public and the media, to adopting a greater constitutional framework that reinforces public accountability.
“Some good things have happened, especially in the way institutions can be called to account,” says Chirwa. “But it’s when it matters most – in calling the president and cabinet ministers to account – that the system fails.”
Relying on an ethical executive
It only functions, he says, as long as the executive performs well, is ethical and observes the constitutional boundaries that define the separation of powers and the role of other institutions of oversight (such as the public protector).
“But where there’s a failure of accountability and constitutionalism at the top, and if corruption sets in at that level, the system crumbles and fails.”
“Where there’s a failure of accountability and constitutionalism at the top, and if corruption sets in at that level, the system crumbles and fails.”
Toeing the party line
The authors isolate three major impediments. The first is that voters can’t hold individual representatives to account, but can only petition the party to whip them into line.
“If a party does not care about you, that’s the end of it,” says Ntliziywana. “And because the party decides who goes to Parliament, MPs are expected to account to the party. Even if MPs feel strongly about an issue, they are expected to toe the party line, and those who don’t – as we have seen following the most recent vote of no confidence – are singled out for harassment.”
The second deficiency is the dominance of the ANC, he says. “This kills oversight because there is no real threat to the dominant party’s hegemony; it becomes complacent and uses its majority to frustrate oversight. The latest motion of no confidence, for instance, was the eighth, and all of them have failed because the party just throws in the numbers, and that’s it.
“The consequence is that oversight is left to opposition parties.”
Why the EFF’s unorthodox methods may have worked
Ntliziywana observes that the controversy over multimillion-rand state spending on President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla residence – dealt with in detail in the chapter – is an illustrative case.
“The EFF resorted to unorthodox methods to hold the ruling party to account on this, and – though we may have regretted their rowdy conduct in Parliament – it had the desired effect. If everyone had stuck to parliamentary rules and the conventions of decorum, the ANC would simply have dominated and we would not be where we are today with Nkandla.”
“The EFF resorted to unorthodox methods to hold the ruling party to account on this, and – though we may have regretted their rowdy conduct in Parliament – it had the desired effect.”
The third issue concerns the relationship between the legislature and the executive arising from the “tendency of all parties to take their most senior members to the executive and fill their parliamentary seats with more junior members”.
“MPs are at a political disadvantage in holding to account members of the executive who also occupy senior posts in the party,” he says. “This further hampers oversight.”
Accountability is a critical condition
Chirwa and Ntliziywana argue that accountability is the “critical” condition of “establishing a functional democracy that fulfils its promises to its people”.
Yet, they write, as long as parties, and not voters, call the shots, there are “no incentives for MPs to exercise independent judgment” and – particularly where members of the executive have been accused of wrongdoing – they have tended to recoil into their party shells, thereby failing to act collectively to hold the executive to account.
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