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Parliament’s new rules offer a glimmer of hope

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Members of Parliament at the National Assembly before a debate. While the Constitution provides for the National Assembly to facilitate public involvement in legislative and other processes of the Assembly and its committees, this has not included direct petitioning of Parliament, until now, the writer says. – Picture: Phando Jikelo / African News Agency (ANA) / March 20, 2022

By Bheki Mngomezulu

As South Africa celebrates 30 years of democracy, this is an opportune moment for the country to do self-reflection. This includes an identification and enumeration of areas of success where the country has made giant strides.

Similarly, this is an opportunity for South Africa to be honest and identify areas where the country has not performed well or areas for improvement. This would assist in charting the way forward so that the next 30 years could place the country on an upward trajectory or new pedestal.

One of the issues which has resulted in the declining support for the ANC as the governing party nationally and in eight of the nine provinces has been service delivery.

Challenges with the delivery of services have resulted in intermittent protests. Sadly, some of these protests have destroyed the country’s infrastructure – with others resulting in the loss of life.

But it is not all doom and gloom. With the election date drawing closer, politicians are quickly waking up from their slumber. Suddenly, they have a listening ear. They are more visible in communities. As is always the case on the eve of an election, they are introducing various projects in different places and promising to do a lot of other things.

Whether these promises will be kept after the election is everybody’s guess. However, history leads us to the conclusion that this will not be the case. There is little hope that politicians will suddenly be honest and not renege on their promises.

With specific reference to service delivery, one of the reasons why this issue has continued incessantly is the way the public has been engaging with the National Assembly.

Section 59(1)(a) of The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa states that “the National Assembly must facilitate public involvement in the legislative and other processes of the Assembly and its committees”. Such involvement did not include direct petitioning of Parliament.

Until this month, members of the public were only allowed to directly petition the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). They could only petition the National Assembly through a member of Parliament (MP) who served as the intermediary.

This meant, for the voice of the public to be heard and for their concerns to receive audience from Parliament, they depended on the intermediary MP. The effectiveness and ineffectiveness of such an individual determined the pace at which the public’s concerns could be heard and acted upon by Parliament. This impeded the quick resolution of issues that members of the public were complaining about.

The recent decision to amend the House rules and guidelines for petitions brings a glimmer of hope to South Africans. According to the amendments, new developments will take place.

First, four types of petitions have been identified. These are single petitions – personal submissions on personal issues; collective petitions – a joint submission by different people who have a common issue that needs Parliament’s attention; multiple/group or mass petitions – petitions submitted by individuals or groups on the same issue; and an associated petition – a submission by either an association or its representative.

Second, a petition framework has been introduced. It will apply both to the National Assembly and the NCOP. The framework prescribes three months as the maximum period within which a petition must be processed.

According to the media statement released by the National Assembly this week, these new changes will result in addressing service delivery issues. Moreover, the changes will ensure an open, transparent, and responsive legislative body – either as the National Assembly or the NCOP.

At face value, these goals are achievable. In that sense, there is reason to celebrate since prospects for better service delivery look good.

While the insinuation above is plausible, there are certain reasons South Africans should not raise their hopes too high.

South Africa has many good laws and policies, which would have taken this country far if they had been implemented properly. The problem is that implementation, monitoring and evaluation have been lagging.

For these amendments to produce the intended results, MPs must breathe life into them. Unless they are implemented, the amendments will amount to nothing.

Another concern is that public education on government processes is not happening as it should. Consequently, there are members of the public who are not aware of their rights enshrined in Chapter 2 of the Constitution.

Regarding these amendments and the green light given to members of the public to petition the National Assembly directly, nothing will change unless the intended beneficiaries know about these changes. Furthermore, even if they know, what is important is for them to act accordingly.

Therefore, there is a glimmer of hope that service delivery will improve following these amendments. However, more work still needs to be done to ensure that the amendments are known, and that they are implemented.

Regarding agency, it would be foolhardy to expect politicians in both the National Assembly and the NCOP to breathe life into these amendments. Members of the public should also be active participants in ensuring that these changes produce the intended results.

At the centre of the entire discussion is the need for everyone to be educated about these amendments. This should begin immediately. Once this goal has been achieved, monitoring and evaluation should follow.

Prof Bheki Mngomezulu is Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at the Nelson Mandela University