Publication: Sunday Independent Issued: Date: 2000-11-05 Reporter: Editor: John Matisonn

Parliament Tosses out the Rubber Stamp

Publication  Sunday Independent
Date 2000-11-05
Editor John Matisonn
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Parliament flexed its muscles this week, signalling a shift in power from the executive to MPs, who have been increasingly seen as rubber-stamping government decisions. 

Parliament's more assertive role is emerging in relation to the multibillion-rand arms deal, which is facing a massive escalation in costs - from R30-billion to R43-billion - and deepening questions around corruption. MPs also asked searching questions this week about HIV/Aids and economic policy.

While parliament has in the past made substantial changes to legislation, it has not gone as far as it did this week in exercising its constitutional prerogative to question the cabinet's transparency, as well as launching the investigation into the deal. 

The investigation is likely to spread beyond the arms industry itself to include, perhaps, the debacle surrounding the third cellphone licence. 

The decision to investigate the arms deal, approved by the national assembly on Friday, was only one of several decisions this week indicating that MPs are flexing their constitutional muscles.

"We always knew it would take a while for day-to-day political behaviour to catch up with the constitution's aspirations," said Richard Calland, an analyst at the Institute for a Democratic South Africa.

"Now people in parliament are acquiring the skills, assertiveness and craft to use the constitution-given powers in ways that are meaningful and that do not cause undue party-political disaster. This has been the most vibrant week in parliament's life since 1994, in the range of its activities, the way that views have crossed party lines, and in the debates on matters of great public importance, including Palestine."

Parliament's more assertive role coincides with a stirring in civil society: members of the traditionally ANC-aligned South African National Civics Organisation have fielded independent candidates, particularly in the Eastern Cape, for the December 5 local government elections.

The scope of the arms investigation is wide enough to include not only serious allegations of corruption, but also whether the cabinet was careful enough about spending as much money and whether it failed to disclose important information about the deal to the public.  

A range of independent investigators - including the auditor-general, the public protector and the directorate of serious economic offences - have been given the go-ahead to not only investigate the deal for corruption, but to go beyond the deal itself.

Information to be handed over to investigators includes numerous allegations that have streamed into parliament's public accounts committee since it announced its probe.

The government confirmed this week that the price tag on the arms deal has risen to R43,8-billion, excluding interest, and the public accounts committee report adopted by the national assembly said "the public should have been informed" that the costs would be likely to rise well beyond the original R30-billion.

"Cabinet was sufficiently well-informed to have made the public aware of the fuller cost possibilities of the deal," the report said.

The report also raised the concern that Armscor's tendering processes used conflict-of-interest provisions that were "clearly weak". 

The committee debated whether to call the government's projection that 65 000 jobs are to be created by the deal "adventurous" or "generous" before settling on "possibly optimistic". Parliament's committee on trade and industry has been briefed to investigate the jobs claim. 

At a workshop to hear Trevor Manuel, the finance minister, explain the medium-term expenditure framework that he unveiled this week, MPs from all the parties questioned whether the government had a clear plan to achieve economic growth, now that the macroeconomic fundamentals are successfully in place. 

That workshop was followed by a finance committee hearing, which heard that the government does not have the data to plan for the impact of HIV/Aids. Several committees of parliament will meet to discuss hearings that will explore the government's plans to deal with Aids. 

The actions of MPs and committees this week are in line with the powers of parliaments elsewhere: in the United States the pendulum of power swings between the legislature and the executive, depending on political factors. 

With acknowledgement to Jon Matisonn and the Sunday Independent.