Buti Manamela, ANC MP and leader of the Young Communist League, caused a stir in Parliament this week when he stated bluntly that he acts on orders from Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters. He was speaking at the meeting where the ANC used its parliamentary majority to shut down the ad hoc committee tasked with considering the R208 million in state monies spent on President Jacob Zuma’s private homestead Nkandla.


Manamela’s frank admission has a history that can be traced back at least to how the arms deal was handled in Parliament. It has much to do with how the internal hierarchies of political parties undermine the separation of power between the legislative and executive arms of government. MPs occupy a lower rung in parties than members of the executive who usually also serve in the party executive. This edited excerpt from Working Democracy: Perspectives on South Africa’s Parliament at 20 Years (e-book downloadable here) features interviews with MPs reflecting on how the power imbalances within political parties affect parliamentary oversight:

With the South African Parliament having laid the constitutional and legislative foundations of a democracy during its first term, the second (1999-2004) term would have seen the onus shift to oversight — theoretically. By 2001, however, claims of massive corruption in the R60 billion arms deal presented the fledgling democracy with a gargantuan test, which in hindsight proved to be too much, too soon.

The stated commitment to parliamentary oversight slammed up against party-political interests. Of the two forces, it was the nascent legislative authority that buckled. The limitations of parliamentary supervision over the executive were established: the executive, in move after move, established its pre-eminence in the relationship, also for future reference. These unfolding events had a domino effect: as Parliament’s oversight ambitions were curtailed, so were those of other constitutional bodies that became involved in the initial arms-deal investigation. The stage was set for subsequent interferences with institutions in controversies still to come, with these bodies being swept up into the factional politics of the ruling ANC. The arms-deal saga also set in motion what became the habit of using Parliament to change or discard structures depending on their (non-) allegiance to internal ANC factions. The doctrine of separation of powers was subsumed by a particularly messy politics. […]

Asked about the impression that Parliament rubberstamps decisions taken elsewhere (in the executive or the ANC’s headquarters, Luthuli House), Sisa Njikelana, ANC MP since 2004, responds that: ‘I wish people could be in our caucuses and see how shrapnel is flying when we talk about really upping the scale and be more intensive in ensuring that the executive does deliver’ (interview). However, he also sees as a ‘starting point’ that ‘political parties subscribe to certain political values … that they sell to the electorate … [to] assume power … We deploy cadres into various areas, government and parliament and everywhere. From time to time, we monitor and give directives on things. The style of leadership will be informed by the precepts of the ANC … I work within the precepts of my own organisation.’ […]

A former senior ANC MP, who spoke anonymously, says that to speak out as an individual MP is almost impossible. The example of ANC MP Andrew Feinstein is the most obvious. ‘The party line has to be followed, right or wrong.’ The political implications of taking on the president, cabinet, or the party are profound, as the anonymous former ANC MP contends: ‘Just look at where the power lies.’ In particular, he says, within the ANC ‘the executive is seen as the entity that runs the country. It is not seen as Parliament as the highest institution has the final say over the matter. So if you look at the separation of powers now, when a particular minister brings an issue up in Parliament and if there [are] different views … If you look at the pecking order in the political structures and I’m sure it’s like that in every party, then the most senior people occupy what are seen as the most senior positions. So if the minister is seen as politically more senior, then … the ability of a committee chairperson to engage head-on with a minister is limited. You are supposed to accept this is the line that is coming from the minister and you must not go and counter the minister publicly or even in the committee of even in caucus because they would pull rank. In my view, when you talk about legislation the committee chair is more senior than the minister because the committee chair is the person who has the final say over processing that legislation for it to become effective [and apply] to the country as a whole. Not the minister. If it is blocked by Parliament it cannot become law. The law-maker is Parliament.’ (interview)

A possible but improbable solution to the problem would be to appoint more senior party members to Parliament and increase the remuneration of senior parliamentary politicians.

Add to the issue of hierarchy the fact that any party acts as an in-group. Njikelana explains that the use of an issue as a ‘political football triggers defensiveness. The media have to sell papers and make profits. They sensationalise and in the process issues get muddled’. A third issue is that MPs are simply overwhelmed. Using the Public Protector’s report on the use of public funding to expand Zuma’s private residence Nkandla as example, Njikelana argues that the never-ending flurry of events surrounding the report became bewildering. Combined with it being a politically charged issue, an MP can get to a point of exasperation — of ‘I’ve got enough on my hands. Let me deal with what I can’. The anonymous former senior ANC MP suggests that MPs are frequently unable to get their heads around everything expected of them. One might add here that it is not far-fetched that party leaderships use the partial knowledge of MPs to their own advantage.’



Christi van der Westhuizen

Dr Christi van der Westhuizen is an award-winning political columnist and the author of the book Working Democracy: Perspectives on South Africa's Parliament at 20 Years, available for download...

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