However, the problem goes much further than the antics of the EFF. We now have to ask to what extent Parliament is playing the central role that was envisaged for it in our constitutional system – in which it is supposed to be co-equal with the Judiciary and the Executive.

Parliament’s role is spelled out in section 42(3) of the Constitution:

“The National Assembly is elected to represent the people and to ensure government by the people under the Constitution. It does this by choosing the President, by providing a national forum for public consideration of issues, by passing legislation and by scrutinising and overseeing executive action.”

The degree to which members of the National Assembly actually represent the people is questionable. Instead, it is clear that because of our proportional representation system they are actually accountable to their party’s political bosses, rather than to the electorate. In terms of section 47(3)(c) they lose their membership of the National Assembly (and thus, in most cases, their livelihood) if they cease to be members of the party that nominated them as members of the Assembly.

This gives political bosses enormous control over their ability to hold the Executive to account. Any member of the National Assembly who fearlessly tries to scrutinise or oversee the actions of the Executive would, in all likelihood, soon find him or herself without a job.

This reality was graphically illustrated by the sequence of events following the ANC’s National Conference in Polokwane in December, 2007. By swinging the support of only 10% (or 400) of the conference delegates to its cause, the SACP/COSATU/Zuma faction was able to seize control of the ANC – and thus of the Legislature and the Executive. It was able to dismiss the President under whose leadership the ANC had won the preceding national election, and could dictate to Parliament whatever policies it wished to adopt.

The continuing dominance of the ruling movement over Parliament and its procedures is illustrated by the fact that the ANC has appointed Baleka Mbete, one of its principle office bearers, as Speaker of the National Assembly. In functioning democracies throughout the world it is accepted practice that the Speaker should be, and should be seen to be, independent of party politics. The Speaker should be in a position to direct the work of Parliament in a fearless and unquestionably independent manner. That this is not the case is evident from the repeated failure of Parliament to serve as “a forum for public consideration of issues” and to “scrutinise and oversee” rigorously and effectively the actions of the Executive.

Many of these problems could be addressed by introducing the reforms suggested several years ago by Ferderick van Zyl Slabbert. He proposed an electoral system in terms of which 300 members of Parliament would be elected in multi-member constituencies, while 100 would be chosen according to proportional lists. This would ensure that 75% of MPs would owe their first loyalty to the voters who elected them – and not to their party bosses.

It would also be necessary to repeal section 47(3)(c) to ensure that members of Parliament would no longer be dependent on the approval of their political bosses for their continuing membership of Parliament. In addition, the Speaker would have to be able to play his or her role impartially, effectively and independently from the control or influence of his or her political party.

Under such circumstances Parliament might be able to play the crucial role envisaged for it in the Constitution.

By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation

Photo credit: vic.bergmann / Foter / CC BY-ND