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JUDITH FEBRUARY: What's needed for our new Parliament to be effective

South Africa's sixth democratic Parliament formally opens with the State of the Nation Address on 20 June.

One thing is certain: it will be an interesting five years, punctuated by local government elections in 2021. Those are bound to be fraught and even more hard-fought than before.

The maths has changed somewhat now and the ANC comes to Parliament with 230 seats and not the 249 it previously held, the Democratic Alliance with 84 (previously 89) and the EFF with 44 as opposed to its previous allocation of 25. In addition, the IFP sees itself slightly strengthened from 10 to 14 seats and the FF+ returns with 10 seats (an improvement on the four seats they held in the fifth Parliament) along with four for the ACDP. Of the smallest of small parties, the UDM and COPE return weakened with two seats each and the newcomers ATM and GOOD similarly with two seats (not that Patricia De Lille is a newcomer, but in the incarnation of GOOD, she is).

The fifth Parliament was particularly bruising as Jacob Zuma’s Presidency began to unravel early on. Allegations of corruption and state capture all but consumed Parliament then, with the EFF leading the charge for Zuma to ‘Pay back the money!’ that had been wasted through the excesses of Nkandla. The fifth Parliament was also tragically marked by the ANC defending Zuma at all costs, leading to at times violent and disruptive Sona evenings.

That the ANC was unable and unwilling to hold Zuma to account for looting the state - or in fact ministers like Bathabile Dlamini on the social grant fiasco, to name but a few - is utterly shameful. The party presided over the degradation of Parliament as it protected its corrupt president. Who can forget DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s 2015 speech when he spoke of Zuma, the ‘broken man’ leading a ‘broken country’?

And all the while Zuma laughed it off - even as his party in Parliament did the same.

President Ramaphosa will enter Parliament on 20 June finally serving his own presidential term - and on his own terms - almost - for the balancing act between intra-party factionalism and fixing the state will be tricky to navigate.

Ramaphosa is not Zuma and so the easy lines used by the EFF will be less convincing. Ramaphosa is a wily operator without the easy-to-conjure up corruption allegations tainting him.

The EFF has thrived as the party of spectacle – the hypocrisy of the red overalls and berets has been transparent since the beginning, but never more so than at the EFF gala dinner in February where Rupert and Rothschild wine was on display even as Inanda Club member Julius Malema swore off ‘white monopoly capital’.

Malema and his new cohort will be buoyed by their increase in seats from 25 to 44. However, the EFF had also poised themselves and their supporters for a greater increase in seats and to take over a few provincial legislatures. Or so social media would have us believe. While 10.79% was a respectable showing, the EFF became the opposition party in three provinces, yet plays no ‘kingmaker’ role anywhere in the country. Malema would have eagerly grasped that role in order to hold a sword of Damocles over Ramaphosa and the ANC, thus pushing his radical agenda. That will not happen, so we can expect far more robust engagement from the EFF over the next five years as it seeks to expose the ANC’s weaknesses. The EFF will, however, be challenged by greater parliamentary representation, will need to commit to tighter discipline and also think carefully about how their MPs will be represented in the ‘engine rooms’ of Parliament, namely committees.

The ANC, for its part, will need to rehabilitate the way in which it engages in Parliament - from so-called ‘sleepists’ to loud vulgarity in plenaries, it has not covered itself in glory. In addition, some experienced MPs like Yunus Carrim, Andries Nel and Fatima Chohan will not return to Parliament given the ANC’s reduced majority. This loss of institutional memory and experience will be keenly felt, even as those with corruption allegations swirling around them, such as Bathabile Dlamini and Malusi Gigaba, retain their positions as MPs. Such is the patronage network of the ANC.

The deputy president is the leader of government business in Parliament and is a crucial link between the executive and the legislature. This link was at its weakest during the Zuma years and party discipline on issues largely came from Luthuli House and thus cemented in caucus. Parliament for the ANC was mostly viewed as an inconvenience or a trifle.

Things have decidedly slipped since the first democratic Parliament which featured the ‘Great and the Good’ of the ANC and which worked hard to repeal 789 pieces of race-based legislation. It consolidated the norms around parliamentary procedure in an admirable manner, with the determined Frene Ginwala at the helm as Speaker. The Mbeki years unfortunately saw Parliament lose its lustre as important oversight issues came to the fore. The parliamentary investigation into the arms deal marked the period 1999-2001 when the executive actively intervened to end the investigation by Scopa, then chaired by the IFP’s Gavin Woods. Scopa was torn asunder as MPs who traditionally sought to deal with public accounts through consensus divided strictly along party lines as corruption allegations surfaced. It created a schism within Parliament and a weakening of its oversight role that has left an indelible mark on this democratic institution.

Given our electoral system in which the ‘party owns the seat’, MPs too tend to follow the party line as we have seen over and over again.

If this new Parliament is to be effective, then all MPs will need to take their constitutional role of overseeing the executive more seriously. For the ANC MPs it will not be enough to simply parrot the executive line or not interrogate legislation carefully. It will need to hold ministers to account in earnest if the Ramaphosa presidency is to succeed and a transparent state is to be built. The opposition parties will need to do the same.

The Parliament of the Zuma years is officially over - it is time to try and rehabilitate the institutions Zuma and his corrupt cronies broke.

It will not be easy.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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