Provincial Parliaments are critically important to South Africa’s democracy. As vehicles for public participation, they provide opportunities for oversight, accountability, and transparency on issues that affect our lives.
During the month of March, the annual State of the Province Address (SOPA) officially opened Provincial Parliaments, across the country. This provides an opportune moment to reflect on the potential these institutions have to deepen democracy, as well as to conduct oversight on issues ranging from service delivery to the promotion of health and safety.
Provincial Parliaments are designed to enable public involvement and could play a greater role in addressing the needs of communities. Democracy Works Foundation (DWF) has been tapping into this potential through the South African Civil Society Participation in Provincial Legislature Project (SA CSPPL), which is implemented with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) and is co-funded by the European Union.
The annual SOPA in each province sees the premier, as the head of the provincial executive, addressing the first formal sitting of the Provincial Legislatures. The topic is how the province is faring. This year, most provincial SOPAs addressed everything from women- and youth-directed job creation to the elimination of gender-based violence and the use of marijuana to spur on economic development. Opposition parties use this occasion as an opportunity to unpack and question the promises made in the address, reflecting on the quality of provincial leadership.
But what is the power of Provincial Parliaments beyond this annual event? What opportunities do they provide for citizens and the organisations representing them? Chapter Six of the South African Constitution provides some answers. As the name suggests, Provincial Legislatures have the power to pass provincial legislation in areas outlined by the Constitution. Schedule Four lists functional areas shared by national and provincial Parliaments including important areas such as housing, health care, and education. Exclusive legislative power is assigned to Provinces in Schedule Five on issues that arguably are less important in our everyday lives, such as beaches and amusement facilities. Importantly, the issue of provincial financial management is excluded from both Schedules, meaning that it falls under the exclusive auspice of the national legislature – but given the topic of this piece is what Provincial Legislatures can do to deepen democracy, that is a story for another day.
Like their national counterpart, Provincial Legislatures have the power to hold provincial organs of state accountable and to maintain oversight of the Provincial Executive. To fulfil this important mandate, Provincial Legislatures can summon any person or provincial institution to appear before them. Provincial Legislatures may also receive petitions, representations or submissions from almost anyone wishing to take such action.
As Voltaire and Spiderman’s uncle is quoted as saying: “With great power comes great responsibility”. In this, Provincial Legislatures are no exception. It is their responsibility and constitutional duty to enable public involvement in legislative and legislative committee processes.
This begs the question: could we not hear more about what are Provincial Legislatures doing, outside of the SOPAs? Are they sufficiently vocal during discussions around service delivery, medicine stock-outs, the protection of the rights of vulnerable groups? The answer is, of course, more complex than can be addressed here, but two factors may lie within the Provincial Legislatures and the communities they are meant to serve.
Through the project we are running, it has become clear that many Members of Provincial Parliaments may not be aware of how public participation and continuous engagement with communities can support their task of holding the Executive to account. How else, other than actively bringing community voices to the fore, can MPLs convey the service delivery challenges that communities face as well as invite Provincial Executives to co-design solution-orientated actions?
On the other hand, it has become clear that community members often have a very limited understanding of the oversight functions that Provincial Legislatures are tasked with, and how they can be used to further their causes.
Provincial Legislatures are designed to give the public access to government through their oversight functions. The optimal use of this design presents an enormous opportunity to deepen democracy in both provincial parliaments and communities. Sub-optimal use, on the other hand, would mean those important opportunities to deepen accountability and transparency are missed. The SA CSPPL project run by DWF and co-implemented with the WFD is one effort in addressing this issue. The more that is done to take full advantage of the potential that Provincial Legislatures offer, the more we as a country make democracy work.