ISS survey: MPs too absent, too often


As the general elections approach, it is worth noting what, in fact, the people of South Africa will be voting for. Strictly speaking, they will not be voting for a president – they will be voting for representation in the South African Parliament. It is they, the parliamentarians who will, in turn, then elect the president.

This may be the first job of the Parliament within a system of proportional representation, and an important one at that, but it is by no means its most important. The South African National Assembly (NA) and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), along with other representative bodies, serve as the voice of the electorate in between elections. But they can only do so if they show up for work, and as an Institute for Security Studies (ISS) sample survey has revealed, attendance within Parliament has room for improvement.

Over the last two sessions of Parliament in 2013, the ISS monitored the attendance of Members of Parliament (MPs) at committee meetings, where the real work takes place. The survey found that of the 482 committee meetings monitored, the average attendance was approximately 59% in the NA and 54% in the NCOP. Almost a quarter of these (23%) had less than 49% attendance, which is a critical marker as a majority is required for the committee to take any decisions.

Few jobs are more important than governing a country, and MPs have one overarching function: to represent the will and interest of the people. To do so, they have two essential tasks. The first is to exercise oversight of the executive branch, to ensure that it is doing what it is supposed to, (i.e. delivering services to the people). The second is to formulate and review legislation, although with most cases around the world, the role of formulating new laws has been usurped by the executive branch. Indeed, in South Africa, the vast majority of new bills come from the executive, and ‘private members’ bills’ are rare. Hence, Parliament’s role is largely to review and amend proposed legislation in a process that should, legally, involve extensive public consultations.

Plenary sessions of Parliament, whether the NA or the NCOP, are mainly for voting on proposed legislation or conducting debates. Voting on bills requires that at least 50% of the total number of MPs cast a vote (in some cases 66%, for instance, if it is to change the Constitution). Not infrequently have these votes been postponed because of insufficient attendance, much to the chagrin of the African National Congress (ANC) who are usually the source of the bill in question and who – with 63% of the total vote in the last elections – can on their own make up more than 50% of the total number of MPs.

Although the debates in the plenary sessions are relevant, the majority of work on legislation takes place within committees, of which there are over 50 if one counts both houses of Parliament. The Portfolio, Ad Hoc, Select and Standing Committees are the engines of Parliament, where issues can be explored and elaborated.

This is where individual MPs can play their greatest role, and where the topic can transcend party politics – although this is also rare. Hence, attending committee meetings is perhaps the most important aspect of an MP’s job description. Absenteeism from committee meetings should therefore be rigorously monitored and explicitly disapproved of, as it would under any other normal conditions of employment. If, for instance, an average employee only showed up for work 60% of the time, it is highly likely that they would find themselves unemployed.

To be fair, one should note that some of the smaller political parties, such as the Pan-African Congress (PAC), Freedom Front Plus (FF+), or United Democratic Movement (UDM), to name a few (there are nine political parties with fewer than five ‘seats’ in Parliament, and four with only one seat each), are physically unable to attend all the meetings – especially when a committee meeting schedule would require them to be in two places at the same time. Conversely, the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA), the two largest parties in the National Assembly, are able to have representatives at all scheduled meetings.

The ISS survey supports this assertion, with the UDM’s attendance averaging 14%, that of the FF+ 15% and the PAC less than 1%. Of all the political parties, the DA scored highest, with an average attendance record of 78%. The ANC comes in second at 64%.

For the smaller parties, engaging in committee work is perhaps the only arena in which they are able to make any impact, making attendance all the more critical. This, it seems, is something that the DA has picked up on and is reflected in their attendance record. On the other hand, the strong majority of the ANC at all levels – whether in plenary or within committees – means that they are able to control the agenda, business, and outcome of the meetings. For the opposition parties there may therefore be little incentive to attend regularly, and, conversely, the sheer number of ANC committee members may induce a sense of over-confidence in some members.

There are, without question, some very dedicated and motivated MPs from all parties, while some MPs are chronically late, absent or leaving meetings early. Some MPs did not show up for any meetings, while others – many more than the persistently truant, it should be said – have perfect attendance records. Given the absence of a constituency-based electoral system, however, measuring individual attendance has little relevance, although most parties have self-appointed constituencies that they ‘represent’ and ‘report to’. That all said, attendance at committee meetings is mandatory; it is part of the job and absence should not be taken lightly or excused easily.

What is perhaps of most importance – given the absence of a constituency-based system of accountability – is that the required number of MPs is present to take decisions (called a ‘quorum’). This was the case in 371 of the 482 (77%) meetings monitored.

Breaking this down further, 45% of meetings had 50% – 69% attendance, and 32% of all meetings had more than 70% attendance. While only some of the Ad Hoc committees managed to record 100% attendance, a total of 27 of the 482 meetings had an attendance score of 90% or better.

Considering the importance of this work, and that it is, in fact, a job (and a well-paid one at that), it would not be impertinent to suggest that attendance needs to be improved. Were it a school, remedial action would have been taken against the truant pupils. But it is not; it is one of the highest decision-making bodies in South Africa. While biometric systems have been proposed for the plenary sessions of Parliament, little seems to have been done or proposed to ensure that MPs attend committee meetings.

Written by Stefan Gilbert, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime, and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.