by Iswamo kapalu

Last week, the National Assembly voted on a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma. During the debates, it was suggested by the executive that the motion was part of a plot by the CIA to undermine the sovereign mission of the Republic to transform our economy. A line of argument that fails on several grounds, including the fact that the CIA did not direct the government to waste money or violate the Constitution or abuse state institutions or mislead Parliament. These, and other crises, are the grounds on which the motion was brought. Criticisms against the motion were levelled against the motives rather than the veracity of its basis.

Predictably however, and despite the logically tenuous arguments levelled against the motion, it failed. Anyone who watched the press briefing of the African National Congress’ (ANC) National Working Committee (NWC), would have seen that result coming.

In that press briefing, the Secretary General of the ANC, when asked about whether or not members of ANC would be able to vote according to their consciences, made it clear that they would not. Instead he insisted that the motion was frivolous and that after winning the “debate” with their superior logic, the parliamentary caucus of the ANC would vote the party line. This is because they went to Parliament, not as individuals but as members of the ANC.

There is some substance to the position that members of Parliament are there in their capacities as representatives of their parties. In fact this position is implied by our electoral system and Constitution. Whether that necessarily implies that the conscience of individual Parliamentarians is immaterial is unlikely to be correct. The first and most obvious sign that that is an incorrect understanding of the relationship between Parliamentarians and their consciences, is on their first day on the job.

Schedule 2 of the Constitution, prescribes an oath that every Parliamentarian must make an oath or affirmation that is binding on their conscience. This oath requires them to uphold the law, and the Constitution. It also requires faith to the Republic and diligence in executing their duties. This is an oath that they must each take as individuals.

If the job required them only to be functionaries of their parties in Parliament, there would really be no need for anyone aside from the party whips to take this oath. Further, any rule to the contrary in the rules of their party would be, according to section 2 of the Constitution, be unconstitutional because the Constitution is the supreme law of the Republic. All law and conduct to the contrary is invalid.

If, however unlikely, the NWC of the ANC is correct in their assessment, the necessary question is ‘why then, do we need so many parliamentarians?’

The Constitution, in Section 46, says that “The National Assembly consists of no fewer than 350 members and no more than 400 men and women…” We have a full 400 member National Assembly (NA). If members of parliament were present only their capacities as representatives of their parties, we could just as easily pass the Constitutional muster with an Assembly that is 50 members lighter, and still achieve the same results.

Fifty fewer members in the NA means R51.7 million less a year on salaries alone. That’s R258.4 million per 5 year parliamentary term. This excludes salary increments, benefits and allowances. With government’s commitment to austerity, this extra money would provide some much-needed budgetary relief to an already stretched fiscus.

Either way, something needs to give, whether that thing is attitude towards members’ choices or the composition of the house. Maintaining both, just makes no sense.