Limpopo legislature: an example of what it takes for a near-complete failure of the democratic governance process

What is happening in the Limpopo legislature? Nothing, from what I can discern—this despite the maladministration, corruption, fraud and money laundering in the province being regular topics in the news. So I was surprised last week to hear that the Limpopo leg of the legislative sector’s public hearings to craft the new public participation framework for Parliament and the legislatures drew a healthy crowd.

The attendance has been unbelievable; in excess of 500 people attended, Mtholephi Mthimkhulu, deputy spweaker of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature, said at the launch of the media campaign last week in Parliament. You heard right. The launch of the media campaign for the public hearings took place after the hearings had begun, with only the legislatures in the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape yet to hold theirs. The Western Cape’s was, at the last minute, apparently, postponed “indefinitely”, we were told. 

Nonetheless some good feedback has come out of the provinces that have already held hearings, Mthimkhulu said, including folks wanting to know if their input to the legislatures is ever used and folks wanting legislators to report back on issues they have brought to them—fairly humdrum stuff that should already be happening but clearly isn’t.

People don’t believe that taking the time and effort to participate in the work of the legislatures will yield anything, and the ones that do are frustrated that legislators don’t follow up on the issues they’ve raised.

Maybe I should explain why I harp on about the legislatures, because I’m not sure that everyone understands their role. The legislatures are almost equivalent to a company board of directors, voted in every five years by citizens. Their job is to appoint a premier (the province’s CEO, if you will), who then appoints his or her executive. Thereafter the legislature is to periodically appraise the work of the premier and the executive (oversight), and to create the laws governing the area under their purview. They’re also supposed to pro-actively involve members of the public in these oversight and legislative processes. Parliament works in a similar way, too.

This is the business of democratic governance as set out in the Constitution. Citizens are the shareholders, their investment is the vote they give to legislators and their parties, and the return they expect is what was promised in the election manifestos. Through Parliament and the legislatures, citizens are supposed to be able pull the reins that control the executive.

The failure of the democratic governance process in Limpopo was snapped back into my mind yesterday by a line in a statement released by Jacques Smalle, the Democratic Alliance’s new leader in Limpopo. Explaining why the party had gathered 1,000 letters from Limpopo learners for the party’s leaders to deliver to president Jacob Zuma during their ill-fated “oversight visit” to Zuma’s Nkandla compound homestead yesterday, Smalle said, “A recurring theme in the DA’s community work is that Limpopo children desperately want an outlet to express their feelings about the neglect of their learning environments. Children are the victims of the Limpopo education crisis but have the least opportunities to make their voices heard.”

I’d venture to say their parents, too, have been voiceless. Two glaring examples come to mind—first the drawn-out non-delivery of textbooks to Limpopo schools then the school nutrition programme fraud, which literally took food from the mouths of Limpopo learners.

The DA’s 1,000 #LettersToNkandla (there was a Twitter campaign to it, too), was an NGO-style publicity stunt—but when did that become an automatically bad thing? It’s not as if anything else the party has done in the Limpopo legislature, where the 1,000 letters should have gone, has achieved anything.

Alarm bells should be going off at this point. What would drive a party with two seats in the 49-seat legislature to forgo where they’re supposed to have power to instead raise publicity for the plight of Limpopo learners in this unorthodox manner?

Last month, the Congress of the People—which with four seats is the official opposition in the Limpopo legislature—and the DA staged a walkout out during a too-rare sitting of the house. The two parties say that the office of the speaker twice refused to allow them to read what undoubtedly were to be members’ statements critical of the Limpopo executive and premier Cassel Mathale. Given what’s been going on in Limpopo, I am surprised Mathale and his executive still have jobs, especially if you consider that national treasury and the public service and administration department have effectively been doing the executive’s jobs since December.

DA MPL Desiree van der Walt said the situation was such that members had to clear their statements with an ANC-dominated programming committee before being allowed to address the house. Cope said they’re possibly considering legal action over the matter. Both said the walkout was an ultimatum to the speaker to end the assault on free speech in the legislature as it muted the voices of Limpopo residents.

I suspect the ANC MPLs in the house had a good chuckle at the walkout and carried on as usual. Before resuming in October, the legislature had last held a plenary session in May—that’s almost a quarter of the year gone with nothing to show. Civil society organisations in August blamed poor oversight from both Parliament and the Limpopo legislature for the textbook saga. Last time I checked, the Limpopo legislature had yet to debate fully the R2-billion shortfall that saw several government departments placed under administration and over 30 government officials charged with criminal offences.

The Limpopo legislature is an illustrative example of what it takes to bring about a near-complete failure of the democratic governance process: disillusioned, apathetic citizens, a weak, ill-managed institution, and legislators either strictly beholden to their party or enfeebled by the institution’s weaknesses.

It saddens me to say that the other legislatures and Parliament are different only by a few shades.

I am cynical as to whether the Limpopo legislature (or the South African legislative sector in general) can ever win back public confidence regardless of the reforms it puts in place to strengthen public participation and its ability to conduct effective oversight. What I do know is that come 2014, the election machinery will roll into Limpopo and the other provinces—with the ANC’s R200-million behemoth leading the charge—and buy a way to prop up the façade of democracy.

Do more:

  • Make a submission to SA legislative sector on new public participation framework
  • Sign MyVoteCount’s petition for electoral and party funding reform
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2 thoughts on “Limpopo legislature: an example of what it takes for a near-complete failure of the democratic governance process

  1. Nicely explained TO, I definitely learned a thing or two today 🙂

  2. michaelgraaf says:

    I often contemplate this matter of the passiveness of citizens. I believe authoritarian culture is a big part of its causation. And “traditional” authorities are a big part of perpetuating authoritarian culture.

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