‘We feel like Cinderella’
Veteran says Parliament is undermined by the judiciary and executive, and cannot carry out its constitutional mandate
Parliament is feeling undermined by the other two arms of state – the judiciary and the executive – and has appealed to President Jacob Zuma to convene a meeting between the three to iron out issues. In an interview this week about the performance of the fifth democratic Parliament, Thandi Modise (55), chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, spoke about the institution’s frustrations at not being able to carry out its constitutional mandate adequately. She complained about “interference” from the judiciary and said Parliament had a right to run its own affairs.
Parliament also felt undermined by the executive, was hampered by a shortage of funding and resources, and needed to improve coordination with the executive.
She said the legislature should not feel like a “Cinderella” between the other two arms of state. “Parliament has not been told it is the junior of the three partners,” she added.
Modise was elaborating on a surprise admission at a parliamentary breakfast, where she told staff and MPs that while the new dynamics that characterised Parliament were “exciting”, it felt “undermined on both sides, by the executive and the judiciary”.
“We have appealed for the president to please convene the three arms of state. We want to have a discussion. We think there is interference … Let’s talk, let the executive also tell us their frustration, let the judiciary bare their matters.”
Modise said Parliament needed to have robust mechanisms in place to ensure acts did not end up in the Constitutional Court, that it could fulfil its oversight role of holding the executive to account and approve budgets for departments, including chapter 9 institutions.
Regarding recent court challenges by opposition parties, including a few bruising court rulings, Modise said: “I think that in any company, CEOs are given better respect than the executive authority of Parliament [the presiding officers].
“As presiding officers, we want to be free to use our rules, which we have agreed to without being threatened by court actions … When Parliament ignores its own rules and acts unfairly, then take us to court, but make sure that at all times, the space of Parliament is respected.
“Look at some of the court judgments – and I am really putting my foot in on this one – but some of them just say: ‘I know I shouldn’t be getting into this area, but I am going into it anyway.’”
She said Parliament was funded below the inflation rate, which eroded the abilities of MPs to do their jobs properly.
To ensure ministers and departments were held to account, coordination needed to be strengthened between Parliament and the executive – through the leader of government business Cyril Ramaphosa. “If a step is missed between the coordination of the two programmes, then the [parliamentary] programme is undermined and this can create tension.”
Modise would not be drawn into discussing the negative impact of the Nkandla controversy, other than to say that the process of holding the president to account was still in process and the presiding officer of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, was driving the process.
Modise said the “newness and vigour” that had emerged in Parliament with the arrival of younger MPs in the opposition had affected the institution’s ability to make its own internal arrangements. While saying that “some of it is very negative”, she conceded that the entry of the Economic Freedom Fighters had forced Parliament to relook at its processes. She said the party’s arrival had coincided with a plan for a renewal after 20 years of democracy and a drive towards a more “participative democracy”.
“Some of the rules they criticise make sense. The young people come in and say: ‘We think your medical scheme does not work for us.’ It forces us older ones to look at the medical aid and say: ‘We think you have a point here.’ It might be good when you are retiring, but not when you are coming in with a young, growing family.” The veteran politician admitted that certain support systems had slipped over the years. When she arrived as a first-time MP with the establishment of the first democratic Parliament in 1994, she was a young, breastfeeding mother under 35 years old.
“I had better support than the new MPs who are at a child-bearing age now. At that time, Parliament was alive to my needs. It offered childcare facilities and spoke to the working conditions of MPs.”
Childcare facilities were shut down amid a perception that MPs were not bringing their own children to Parliament.
These services now needed to be reinstated at a time when there were new pressures on Parliament and a squeeze on space, with committees having to be accommodated in hotels. The number of MPs had remained the same, but their workload had increased with the expansion of Cabinet and more departments to oversee.
“Unless you consistently keep your eye on the ball, certain gains that you think you had are going to slip,” warned Modise.
Thandi Modise says Parliament has the right to run its own affairs