The first speaker of the day was Mosiuoa Lekota, former chairperson of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) and current Member of Parliament in the National Assembly. In discussing the topic at hand, he emphasised the importance of education in ensuring voters and elected representatives understand the constitutional and legislative imperatives in relation to accountable government. Without being educated in how to ensure that Parliament is accountable to the People, Parliament itself cannot represent the people in a just manner. He identified education as a tool for empowerment in that it enables voters to make sound and rational decisions when it comes to electing representatives. There is no chance of intimidation when the people are empowered. Furthermore, when one understands the election process and the systems used to select representatives, it becomes impossible to sway them with fallacies concerning their positions. He blasted the current system of education which allows matriculants to “pass” with a score of 30%. This he said, amounts to the denial of quality education and trickles into the failure to know one’s rights and thereafter, failing to access those rights. Without education, one cannot benefit from the rights enshrined in the Constitution.

The second point he highlighted was that those who are elected to Parliament need to know the Constitution and understand how to put it to use. In this regard he said that the role of the Legislature is not to pander to the National Executive but rather to monitor, constructively, whether the National Executive is faithfully adhering to their constitutional obligations. This, he asserted, was unfortunately not the case. He argued instead that many Members of Parliament representing the governing party believe that disagreeing or criticising the National Executive is tantamount to being disloyal to the Party. Hence, such Members do not challenge questionable legislation, policies or conduct by the National Executive, but instead protect them from criticism. Accordingly, Parliament fails to hold the National Executive accountable for their actions. He used an example of the time he spent as Chairperson of the NCOP and Ministers failing to avail themselves for question time. He said that the duty of these Ministers is to the people – and answering questions in Parliament is a manner by which this duty is exercised. By failing to answer to Parliament, Ministers are failing to respond to the People whom they are serving.

He underlined the need for sanction (instead of pats on the back) where Members of Parliament fail to perform their duties. The levels of compromise in this regard are too high. Not only do Members of Parliament take an oath before entering office, but that oath binds them to protecting the rights of the people. Mr Lekota stated that he was not sure whether elected representatives always understood what that oath meant. He made mention of the al-Bashir matter and the manner in which it was handled as being an example of a violation of the aforementioned oath.

In closing, he pointed towards the underlying values required to guide individuals in respecting the offices to which they are elected or which they may occupy. In the absence of such values, he held, good leadership will be absent.

The second speaker of the morning was Tony Leon, former Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly and Member of Parliament. He began his speech by asking when last a corrupt politician was arrested – none since the Tony Yengeni matter. This was in 2006. He emphasised that failing to hold Members of Parliament to the highest standard of accountability will result in no accountability at all.

He drew a comparison between the era of parliamentary supremacy and that of the post-1994 constitutional democracy and opined that we have failed at upholding the democracy. He said that Parliament has drifted from a forum for public debates to a place for non-debates over non-issues. He described the new Parliamentary Rules as atrocious and questioned them in so far as they will see the abolishment of Question Time without notice to the Head of State, as well as to apportion public gallery seats to reflect party support levels. These rules will effectively limit accountability.

He pointed to the early days of democracy where criticism and question time – whilst not enjoyable – were accepted and ensured accountability across the ranks. Hope is not lost however as there are signs of renewal. There is a significant amount of push-back form the Opposition, resulting in robust discussions taking place in Parliament. There are varied ranks in the Opposition which are of one mind in terms of resisting executive overreach more than ever. The Judiciary is also less executive-minded.

Following the respective speeches, the audience raised a number of pertinent questions. The first concerned whether or not proportional representation and the closed party-list system was the best electoral system for the country. Both speakers agreed that the best system was a mixture of constituency and closed party-list systems, resulting in proportional representation to ensure that even minorities are represented in Parliament. The constituency system will entrench accountability between representatives and the people by whom they are elected.

When questioned about whether the race to educate the masses would ever be won, Mr Lekota answered in the affirmative.

The final question asked whether citizens understood their rights enough to engage with Parliament regularly and effectively. Mr Lekota answered by saying that some black South Africans are made to believe that because they did not participate in the struggle that they have no place in the development of democracy. Mr Leon responded by saying that the public does not engage because it feels it does not really matter because the decisions have already been made. Both speakers, however, agreed that it was crucial for individuals and organisations to engage with Parliament – whether through submissions or petitions – in order to raise their concerns. Not only would it serve a public awareness purpose, but also make Members of Parliament attend to the fact that the People are aware of what they are doing (or not doing) in Parliament.

The golden thread that ran through both speeches is that accountability is a two-way street. Parliament must open its doors to the people and the people must engage with the same in order to obtain results from the representatives. The Constitution must be upheld at all times in the exercise of power by the Executive.

By Rebecca Sibanda: Intern, Centre for Constitutional Rights