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The State of the Nation Address: An important tool for accountability and democracy – Baleka Mbete

Baleka MbeteIntroduction

Attention and debates about events in Parliament in the second half of 2014, have had the positive spinoff of raising our peoples’ interest in Parliament – the People’s Parliament. South Africans correctly continue to have an interest to understand the workings of Parliament as one of the three constitutionally determined arms of the State. The others are the Executive and the Judiciary. The Legislature, Executive and Judiciary operate on the basis of the doctrine of separation of powers which enables them to each focus on its specific area of work. Their roles are separate yet interdependent.

For the past twenty years of our project of developing democratic institutions for nation-building, we have been exposed to the reality of Parliament being a highly contested terrain. This must never surprise us. In future we must prise this matter open and begin to come to terms with the nature of this institution as – among other things – a very robust battle ground of ideas.

As nation, we must take interest in how our institutions work and be part of their ongoing development. Annually the President of the Republic addresses a special joint sitting as part of his obligation to report back to the nation on a previously agreed programme. The programme is derived from ANC Lekgotla which influences government through its own subsequent Lekgotla. Various government departments further take matters relevant to their portfolios out of that Lekgotla exercise. It is important to understand this link. It is also important to acknowledge the centrality of the promises of the Manifesto to the people who give us their mandate when they vote for the ANC.

SONA is one occasion where the three arms of the state come together under one roof, with the executive led by the President, members of Parliament led by the Presiding Officers and the judiciary under the leadership of the Chief Justice. It is also attended by provincial Premiers, Speakers, Judge Presidents, representatives of the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) and specially-invited guests including former Presidents and Deputy Presidents, ambassadors and many other sectors.

The nature of the Address does not only reflect on past promises. The SONA is highly significant for a participatory democracy such as South Africa that is characterised by an open and transparent relationship between the government and the people. The President addresses the nation and informs us of the government’s work. He reports back to the nation on government’s successes, challenges and shortcomings in the previous year. The people of South Africa are thus not subject to secrecy, uncertainty and surprises.

Generally-speaking, the President’s address can be divided into four parts. First, the President paints a broad picture of the status of South Africa’s international position, the political, economic and social environment. He could give an overview on the strength of our constitutional democracy and our progress as we transit towards our envisaged National Democratic Society.

Second, the President announces the government’s achievements of the past year. This part is in essence a report-card on how and if the government achieved the targets set in the previous SONA, mainly in the field of service delivery. Third, the President will probably outline work that remains outstanding from the previous year’s announcements. This part can also be termed a mini-forecast of what government is committed to achieving in the year ahead.

The President also uses the SONA to highlight the government’s priorities and plans. This is probably the most important part of SONA. In this part, the President focuses attention on the most important projects the government aims to initiate or complete. There might be a general reference to broad spending indications and timelines for completion.

These plans and their spending components are further elucidated by the Minister of Finance when the annual Budget is tabled usually a fortnight later. Individual Ministers then table their budget votes which are then scrutinised by committees and debated in Parliament. Naturally the National Development Plan (NDP) is likely to feature prominently in this regard. The NDP will also form an integral part of the work of MPs throughout the 5th Parliament.

Parliament’s engagement with the State of the Nation Address

The most immediate parliamentary interaction with SONA is a three-day joint debate where political parties react to the government’s announcements, followed by the President replying to this debate.

After the debate, the parliamentary spotlight shifts to one of Parliament’s core functions, i.e. oversight and holding the Executive accountable. Holding the executive accountable is not a once-off event, but comprises Members of Parliament and parliamentary committees focusing on the announcements of new plans and priorities to determine their oversight and committee programmes for the next twelve months. MPs also use the SONA to ask oral and written questions.

The SONA also provides clarity and certainty on government’s plans to stakeholders that need timely information to make their own plans that are in line with government’s intentions.

In a democratic society such as ours, the role and function of the Legislature as a body reflecting the majority opinion should not only be acknowledged but also supported. Political parties represented in Parliament use the debate on the SONA to express their acceptance or disapproval of any of the government’s plans and priorities. The debate is specifically designed to enable all parties to make their views known. The parties’ time allocation for the debate is determined proportionally based on the percentage of support they garnered at the polls. So, while the majority party receives the bulk of the speaking time, other parties will also participate accordingly, proportionately on the basis of their electoral support. It is thus in the nature of Parliament that a platform is created for a multiplicity of divergent views, in a manner that is consistent with democracy.

Often commentators create an impression that being a majority is a crime. Being a majority is simply the outcome of elections and an expression of support for ANC policies. Ours is to ensure that we transform society on the basis of the mandate from our people. We await the report and plans on that from the President at SONA.

Article by Baleka Mbete

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