Parliament must be the watchman on the walls of our democracy

The following end of year farewell speech was delivered today by the DA’s Chief Whip, John Steenhuisen MP, in Parliament.
Madam Speaker,
Another year has passed as quickly as the last. 2017 has been a tumultuous year, not only for this Parliament but for our South Africa as well:
In February Minister Dlamini brought SASSA to the brink of collapse imperilling the lives of the 17 million of our countrymen and women who rely on this important social safety net.
In March, The President, for the second time, dumped the country into crisis when he reshuffled his cabinet, removing finance minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas together with 20 other changes that sent the markets crashing. Many couldn’t work out what was behind these changes but as the State Capture dots began to be joined the motives became clear for all to see.
In May, the #Guptaleaks laid bare the sheer scope and scale of State Capture, revealing the rot at the heart of government and exposing the Billions of Rands of the people’s money looted from the public purse in the biggest smash and grab in our democratic history.
In August, the President survived his eighth motion of no confidence, and with the secret ballot having been granted the house witnessed the largest backbench rebellion with 177 members of this house voting in favour of removing the President from office.
In October, the Finance Minister tabled a budget full of doom and gloom but not a single solution, policy shift or bold initiative to get us out of the mess or create jobs for the 9.8 Million of our fellow South Africans who do not have the dignity of a job.
In November, the President was permitted to blatantly ignore out of a straightforward question on the order paper, which his office had for 16 days, and with not even as much as a concern or flurry from the Presiding officer that the effectiveness of this house and its primary function was being grossly undermined right under his very nose.
And as we head into December we do so as an economy that has been junked by the ratings agencies because the governing party that is so completely incoherent that South Africans and the international community have lost hope in the ANC’s ability to get their act together, even after their conference.
We find ourselves exiting 2017 with Mr Zuma still in the Union Buildings, the downgraded President of a downgraded economy.
But despite all this, there have been some highlights:

  • The stellar work done by the Ad-Hoc Committee on the SABC board enquiry.
  • The portfolio committee on social development and SCOPA’s handling of the social grants crisis.
  • The decision of the Speaker to allow a secret ballot in the motion of no confidence.
  • The portfolio committee on Public Enterprises ESKOM enquiry.
  • The consensus that has characterized our work in programming and the chief whips forum.
  • The terrific celebrations we held around our Constitution

Watchmen on the walls of democracy
And perhaps all these challenges of 2017 have underscored, more than ever before, the important and essential role this Parliament should be playing. We really are among the last watchmen left on the walls of our democracy.
And never in the democratic history of our nation, has this role been more essential or crucial.
American slavery abolitionist Wendell Phillips bequethed us the well know quote that:
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”
But he went further to say that:
“The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity”
The reality is that State Capture did not emerge overnight, it didn’t just spring up, it was a carefully planned process, a process that developed slowly, methodically and with maximum malice and it happened in the full view of those in the executive who should have been watching and who should have known better  and who should, when the opposition raised the alarm, acted sooner.
Our vigilance has never been more important or needed than it is now. This is a task that no member in this house, regardless of the party t-shirt they wear, should ever underestimate or undervalue.
We have seen first hand the deceitful forces that have captured key institutions of our state subverting these institutions original intention to serve, benefit and protect the people and transforming them into ATM’s and bodyguards for the connected few.
We have seen the elite corruption busting Scorpions, castrated at the hands of Mr. Yunis Carrim, and turned into the tame and caged Hawks. They are so captured, corrupted and compromised that we should rename them the Budgerigars.
We have seen our State Security agency turned into a political gossip factory that misses every single attack on our sovereignty and security as a nation, yet is never short of smears or crudely drawn intelligence reports to taint a political rival or a handy break-in at an opponents premises.
We’ve seen SARS go from an internationally respected an acclaimed revenue collection institution into a veritable rogues gallery of insiders and captured individuals who’s only aim is to ensure their rich buddies get away with even more public money than they have already stolen.
And of course the NPA who loudly proclaimed that their “days of being disrespected are over” and yet went on to behave in a shameful manner that has made them the laughing stock of the nation.
And that is why we, all of us, are called upon to break this cynical cycle of corruption and capture.
The High Level Panel
Since we have well passed the halfway mark of this 5th Parliaments life, it’s perhaps a good time to examine the role of the house and its place in our democracy. And there can be no better stimulus for this discussion than the recently released High Level Panel assessment of key legislation and the acceleration of fundamental change.
It is an incredible document and we must thank the panellists for the work that they have done crisscrossing the country, engaging with communities, examining legislation and establishing for themselves its impact and effect on the lives of our citizens. They have identified many of the challenges that block our path to prosperity, many of these acts of commission or omission by this very chamber.
Its a welcome body of work and I really do hope that members, after a certain event at Nasrec is over, will spend their Christmas recess studying it closely. But I do think that we should pause and ask ourselves as members of this house, why? Why was it a high level panel that had to find that:

  • Only 0.4% of our GDP is spent on land reform and that this last year saw the lowest amount of land transferred since 1994. And how so many of our citizens, particularly women, living in rural areas are subject to cruel serfdom where their constitutional rights are trampled.
  • 13974 tourists or investors were denied boarding on South Africa bound flights because of the disastrous unabridged birth certificate policy championed by former Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba- thanks to this policy we are likely to use 578 000 tourists per year a loss of over R7.51 billion (I bet you could do with that now) and who knows how many jobs.
  • Public trust in Parliament, national government and local government have declined rapidly in the last 5 years whilst the trust in our judiciary has increased.
  • We have a skills crisis that the current education and training regime is simply not meeting

It also found that Parliament remains “far too dependent on the executive, which operates in silos, to draft law. This manifests in a lack of integrated approach
The truth is that WE should have been doing this work, WE should have been doing the monitoring and WE should have been doing the engagement.
And we can only do this if we are empowered to do so and that’s why it is essential that we start 2018 with a very hard look at our systems, our processes and the resourcing of members.
We, the members of this house, must be better empowered to be able to access research and resources that will make us better lawmakers, legislators and more vigilant watchmen over the executive.
We have been set as the watchmen on the wall by the people of South Africa, it is their interest we must always safeguard. Our duties have been assigned by the Constitution of the Republic, and we must always meet them.
For it us that will be held accountable if the walls of our democracy are breached by the forces of evil and tyranny. As Ezekiel 6, verse 3 says:
“If the watchman sees the enemy coming and doesn’t sound the alarm to warn the people, he is responsible for their captivity and will be held accountable”
We have much work to do in 2018 to improve our vigilance and resolve to transform this house into a true arena of accountability and a people-centered institution that genuinely advances the interests, hopes dreams and aspirations of all the people of our nation.
Let me end by thanking all of those people who operate behind the scenes who keep our Parliament running, the ushers, the translators, the chamber support staff and those who maintain this house.
Allow me to also extend, once again, a very big thank you to the National Assembly table team for their hard work, long hours and dedication to this institution we are all proud to work in. I would also like to specifically thank Mr Mbulelo Xaso, Collen Mahlangu and Andrew Mbanjwa and their offices for their patience and unfailing willingness to always assist.
I also think we should extend a very special thank you to the acting Secretary Mrs. Penny Tyawa, who stepped in to the position under very difficult circumstances and has, in the short time she has been acting secretary, already transformed the draconian and oppressive management style that existed before.
To Chief Whip Hon. Jackson Mthembu, and his Deputy, Dorris Dlakude, thank you both for your leadership of the whippery of the house. You are both always able to disagree without being disagreeable.
I would also like to thank the Chief Whips of the other opposition parties, notably Mr. Shivambu, Mr Singh, Dr, Mulder, Mr. Nkwanka, Professor Khubisa, Mrs Dudley and Mr. Ntshayisa for their good spirit, hard work and the terrific co-operation the opposition has enjoyed this year.
I would also like to remember specifically, as we close this annual session, Hon. Tim Khoza and Hon. Tarnia Baker who both lost their lives in service of this house and their nation and we remember them both today with respect and affection.
May I, in this season of peace and goodwill, take this opportunity on behalf of our leader Mmusi Maimane and our party to wish all honourable members of this house, and their families a safe, peaceful and restful festive season and we look forward to seeing you all in the new year when we resume with the peoples business,
Who are, as I end with a quote from a poem by our very own Joan Fubbs from her latest collection of poems “ Humanity’s covenant with Life”:
“Waiting and waiting
For a new tomorrow
The clouded horizon
Is pierced by silent hope.
That seeks beyond today”