Report of the independent panel assessment of Parliament
14 January 2009
Parliament of the Republic of South Africa
The assessment of Parliament by an Independent Panel was initially conceived as part of Parliament's engagement with South Africa's African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) process. The section of the APRM questionnaire on democracy and good political governance required an assessment of Parliament. Parliament's Joint Coordinating Committee on the APRM considered it most appropriate that an independent panel conduct such an assessment; however, due to time constraints, this assessment was not possible for the purpose of Parliament's APRM process. Parliament's final report on the APRM process however indicated that an assessment of the independence, efficiency and effectiveness of Parliament would be conducted as a priority project. This project was subsequently initiated with the appointment of an Independent Panel in December 2006 by the Presiding Officers of Parliament.
The terms of reference of the Independent Panel was to inquire into, report and make recommendations regarding the extent to which Parliament is evolving to meet its constitutional mandate in promoting and entrenching democracy. The findings of the Panel have emerged through a detailed literature review combined with a public hearing process that included role-players from within Parliament as well as civil society. A number of recommendations have emerged from the Panel's research, particularly relating to the independence of Parliament vis-à-vis the Executive, and the degree to which Members of Parliament represent, and are accountable to, the electorate.
The Panel deliberations assessed the extent to which Parliament is evolving to meet the expectations outlined in the Constitution, and also to assess the< experience and role of Parliament in promoting and entrenching democracy. The Panel grappled with questions such as: Is Parliament truly expressing its vision of being a "people's Parliament", and what does this concept mean in practice? Though Members of Parliament are elected representatives of the public, to what extent are they effectively fulfilling the role of representing the concerns of the public? Is Parliament promoting and entrenching key democratic principles such as accountability, responsiveness and openness, both within other organs of state and within the institution itself? In posing these questions the Panel sought to avoid speaking in general terms of the role Parliaments play in governance structures and rather focused the discussion on the particular case of South Africa with its unique historical and socio-economic context.
This report reveals that significant challenges remain for Parliament to realise its vision of becoming a people's Parliament. This relates specifically to the link between the electorate and Parliament. Surveys show that there is generally a very poor understanding among the public of Parliamentary procedures and opportunities for participation in Parliamentary processes. While South Africa does not have a constituency-based electoral system, constituency offices have been established and periods allocated for Members of Parliament to conduct constituency work. This report reveals, however, that there are notable challenges with this system.
It has been argued that the perceived lack of accountability of Members of Parliament to the public, as well as the poor link between the public and Parliament in general, can be ascribed to South Africa's party-list electoral system. The Panel deliberated at length on the impact of the party-list electoral system on various aspects of Parliament's work. It was noted that the party-list system tends to promote accountability of Members of Parliament to their political parties rather than to the electorate. The power of political parties to remove their members from Parliament also tends to discourage the expression of individual viewpoints as opposed to party political views. The Panel recognised that alternative electoral systems also have drawbacks. The Panel strongly recommends that Parliament debates the relative merits of various electoral systems and considers the impact of these systems on the institution's ability to give expression to its Constitutional mandate. The view of the Panel is that the current electoral system should be replaced by a mixed system which attempts to capture the benefits of both the constituency-based and proportional representation electoral systems.
In recommending that Parliament considers the impact of the electoral system on the work of Parliament, the Panel does not wish to reduce the debates around public participation, accountability and responsiveness to the matter of electoral reform. It is strongly felt that, even in the absence of electoral reform, Parliament should undertake various initiatives to improve the manner in which it fulfils its Constitutional mandate. The manner in which constituency work is structured, for example, may be improved through a number of practical interventions that do not require electoral reform. In this regard, the Panel recommends that Parliament conducts a comprehensive review of the manner in which constituency work is structured.
With regard to Parliament's legislative mandate there is increasing focus on monitoring the impact of legislation. This trend will require significant changes with regard to how legislation is structured in order to facilitate the subsequent monitoring process. Throughout the Panel's investigations it was also clear that the support offered to Members of Parliament and committees by the Parliamentary Service is crucial to the effective functioning of the institution. While the research and legal services of Parliament have been expanded, these may have to be further strengthened, particularly with regard to legal services. There is also a need to address challenges in the production of transcripts and in the information management systems of the Committee Section.
An issue that received specific attention in the Panel's deliberations was the public perception of Parliament. This issue touched on a number of subjects, including
the effectiveness of Parliament's Public Affairs Section, the manner in which the institution engages with the media, and the code of conduct for Members of Parliament.
The Travelgate issue has recently focused attention on Parliament's relatively weak ability to enforce ethics. In terms of sanctions, the Constitution specifies that a Member of Parliament becomes ineligible to hold office if they are convicted of an offence and sentenced to more than 12 months imprisonment without the option of a fine. Considering the damaging impact that unethical behaviour has on the image of Parliament, the Panel felt strongly that the conditions under which Members of Parliament become ineligible to hold office should be reviewed. It proposed that any Member of Parliament who is convicted of corruption, fraud or a similar offence should be deemed ineligible to serve as a Member of Parliament. As this matter touches directly on section 47 of the Constitution it will be necessary to refer it to the Constitutional Review Committee for consideration.
This report contains a number of recommendations touching on all aspects of Parliament's Constitutional mandate. These recommendations reflect Parliament as a dynamic institution which faces a number of challenges in fulfilling its role of promoting and entrenching democracy. Though the nature of such an assessment tends to focus attention on remaining challenges, the Panel does not wish to denigrate the significant steps that have been taken by Parliament since the transition to democracy. While the observations of the Panel do serve to highlight certain achievements and challenges within the institution, it is hoped that this report will also initiate broader and deeper introspection on an individual and institutional level, thereby assisting Parliament in fulfilling its Constitutional mandate.
For ease of reference, the recommendations of each chapter are provided in summary form at the end of the chapter, and all the recommendations of this report are again presented in summary form in chapter eight.