Parliament must retain institutional knowledge, despite reshuffle

By Nonhlanhla Chanza and Judith February
Much has been said about President Zuma’s recent cabinet reshuffle and the impact it will have on service delivery and the workings of the cabinet in general. Yet, very little has been said about the profound effect the reshuffle will have on our law-making and oversight institution, Parliament.
In the reshuffle seven ministers were axed, and nine chairpersons of Parliamentary portfolio committees were promoted to the executive branch of government, necessitating the appointment of new committee chairpersons. In the Gauteng cabinet reshuffle one more Parliamentary chairperson shifted to its executive ranks. Following the reshuffle the ANC Parliamentary caucus released a statement saying it envisaged filling vacant leadership positions by mid-November when Parliament goes into recess.
It’s a tough task replacing ten committee chairpersons some of whom have extensive Parliamentary experience. Fatima Chohan (Basic education), Ismail Vadi (Communications) and Obed Bapela (Chairman of committees and oversight) come to mind.
Despite the ANC saying that this transition will bring about minimum disruption to the work of Parliament, it is clear it will have a significant impact as Parliament is further denuded of senior members. It is a good time to take stock and reflect upon ways in which we can retain institutional memory.
Despite Parliament’s reputation taking a drubbing in past years, it remains a crucial piece of the democratic jigsaw puzzle. Parliament is responsible for several important tasks – such as the passage of the highly contested Protection of Information Bill, and the implementation of the recommendations contained in the new Oversight and Accountability Model. In addition, Parliament is dealing with dysfunction in the public broadcaster (SABC); regulation in media and communications (Icasa and the MDDA); public expenditure via the Public Accounts Committee as well as various matters within the SA National Defence Force.
There are other matters which also need Parliament’s urgent consideration such as the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Regulations on Judges’ Disclosure of Registrable Interests tabled on 20 October 2010 in terms of the Judicial Service Commission Act and the ratification of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance tabled on 28 September.
Statistics show that by the time the 1994 parliament’s term ended more than a quarter of the original 400 members had left Parliament. Put differently, in 1994, “252 MPs represented the ANC in the National Assembly. In 1999, this number increased to 266. In 1999, 136 of the original 252 MPs elected to the National Assembly on the 1994 ANC ticket returned to parliament.
By the end of the second parliament, in 2004 a total of 102 of MPs elected in 1994 remained in parliament. If one removes from this group those MPs who sit in cabinet and who do not engage in the day to day proceedings of the legislature, the figure drops to 75. In 2008, several committee chairs were appointed into ministerial positions following a spate of resignations after Thabo Mbeki was recalled as president. This created greater flux within Parliament.
After the 2009 elections only a handful of former chairpersons retained their positions. Besides the high turnover of MPs and committee chairpersons, there have also been frequent and regular changes to committee membership.
Obviously, not all changes, cabinet reshuffles and substitutions are necessarily bad.  Some, like Barbara Hogan’s brief stint as Minister of Health in 2008 was a welcome and inspired move.  
But frequent changes and substitutions of committee chairs can disrupt the momentum of committee work as it takes time to gain expertise and the confidence of the other members of the committee. 
Parliament’s new Oversight and Accountability Model attempts to deal with the issue of preserving institutional memory. It recommended the establishment of the Oversight Advisory Section and part of its responsibility will be the “archiving of relevant information to facilitate the retention of institutional memory”. The model further talks about the need to develop “specialisation for certain parliamentary committees that works with broad issues that cut across departments and ministries in all spheres”. Of course putting it into practice is another thing.
While the jury is till out on who the new committee chairpersons will be, Parliament should ponder its measures for retaining institutional and historical knowledge. Most importantly, the expertise, experience and wealth of knowledge in the hands of recently dismissed Ministers, some of whom might return as ordinary MPs, should be efficiently integrated into the work of committees. The ANC has said it will replace MPs by tomorrow. That somehow feels far too long for Parliament to be operating at less than full steam especially given the important law-making and oversight tasks at hand. 
This was first published in the Cape Argus on 17 November 2010.


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