ANALYSIS: The sixth Parliament - For SA to work the ANC needs to contain itself

Parliament is an absolutely wonderful place to be stationed as a journalist. There is arguably no better gig than to be a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, observing the process of oversight and law-making from up close and having a front-row seat to some of the country’s most important inflection points.

The old Cape colonial buildings have retained much of the antiquity and atmosphere of the Victorian and Edwardian eras but have now been infused with a vibrance and vitality that have become synonynous with the post-1994 democratic society.

From the stately Queen’s Hall and the adjacent Library of Parliament – that fewer and fewer MPs actually use – to the Old Assembly (built on the specifications of Westminster’s House of Commons) and the modern National Assembly chamber, Parliament is supposed to embody the public’s check on government power.

The public might be taken with exhibitionist behaviour in the NA when raucous and narcissistic politicians display the worst of their egos with bombastic and petulant behaviour, which, granted, does wonders for DStv channel 108, but that’s not where the real work of the legislature happens.

Parliament’s role is to craft legislation, provide government oversight and hold the national executive to account. Most of this happens away from cameras and flashlights and in musty and bland committee rooms in the sprawling parliamentary complex. That’s where multiparty committees have to comply with their oath to uphold and defend the Constitution and where they need to put the interests of the public ahead of everything else.

But it's also where the system breaks down and where the ANC, revelling in the majorities it has enjoyed for five consecutive parliaments, has proceeded to often put its own narrow interests above that of the country.

The fifth Parliament, sitting between 2014 and 2019, saw some of the most blatant abuse of process and majority since 1994. The ANC’s caucus, under the leadership of the chief whip, Jackson Mthembu, and the direction of Speaker Baleka Mbete, was for the better part of the parliamentary term completely under the heel of Luthuli House.

With subservient cadres deployed to strategic sites of influence and control, like the chairs of committees including the justice and finance committees, the interests of factions in the ANC were more often than not served by decisions taken on the basis of deference to party HQ.

The most glaring and obvious example is the way in which Parliament was co-opted to protect former president Jacob Zuma from any and all scrutiny in the Nkandla matter, one of the most brazen incidents of corruption in the last decade. The ANC’s caucus blindly defended Zuma against all attempts to extract accountability, even in the face of incontrovertable evidence in the public domain and an investigation and report by the Public Protector.

A series of committees, dominated by the ANC, ignored rhyme and reason, Constitution and law, in shielding their man, regardless of the damage it did to institutions and fledgling democratic convention. Ministers and MPs were recruited and committees debased to undermine Parliament’s role, and in the end it was the Constitutional Court – loath to intervene in the affairs of a separate branch of government – that ordered Parliament to do its job.

When SARS was being dismantled piece by piece and a distraught official forwarded a comprehensive memorandum to the finance committee detailing Tom Moyane’s activities and warning against their repercussions, it was dismissed as a labour issue and forwarded to the closed and opaque intelligence committee where it sank without trace.

It took the Nugent commission of inquiry to flesh out what the committee could have prevented in 2015. But the damage was done and the aftermath of the ANC dominated committee’s deliberate, factionally motivated inaction will be felt for years.

It was only when the tectonic political plates in the ANC started to shift that some MPs started to take their oversight roles seriously. When the SABC’s Hlaudi Motsoeneng outlived his usefulness an inquiry was constituted, with ANC MPs taking part with gusto. And it was only when the pre-Nasrec divide in the ANC became too glaring to ignore that the inquiry into Eskom and public enterprises gained momentum.

But these flashes of accountability weren’t the function of an established parliamentary culture of oversight and constitutionalism, but because of changing political fortunes where MPs had to start hedging their bets. It was the same during the transition from the Mbeki to the Zuma era.

Of the three arms of state – government, Parliament and the judiciary – only the independent courts are functional. Government is wracked by inefficiencies and corruption, and the legislature suffers under the yoke of ANC hegemony and anti-constitutionalism.

If President Cyril Ramaphosa is serious about reparing damaged institutions, ensuring the rule of law and upholding the supremacy of Act 108 of 1996 – the Constitution – the ANC needs to contain itself and let Parliament get on with its job. And that is to hold him and his Cabinet to account, without interference or manipulation.