Marginalised Need Better Access to the Workings of Parliament
Published February 26th 2003 in Business Day (Johannesburg)

THE delivery of the State of the Nation address at the official opening of Parliament by the president is an affair that understandably grips the attention of the citizens of the country.

The president who on being elected by Parliament to that office ceases to be a member of that body addresses not only members of Parliament but speaks to the nation as well.

He delivers to the nation, through Parliament, a report on what government has done since his last address a year ago. He explains whether or not government's goals were achieved. He goes on to chart the way forward, outlining the programme which government has to pursue to make the lives of the people better.

Parliament, including provincial parliaments, can pride itself on being truly a parliament of the people. This is not so merely because the proportional representation system of elections makes it possible for even the tiniest political party to have a voice.

Every member of the public is in theory free to attend parliamentary proceedings, in committee and in the plenary sessions.

The public is also allowed to make representations to the parliamentary committees whenever they deal with draft laws that may have a bearing on the lives of that specific social sector. This means even the villagers of Ngqungqu, where I come from, can influence the outcome of the decisions of our legislators.

The truth, though, is that the indigent and marginalised communities are generally not able to take advantage of these opportunities. They do not have money to organise themselves to surf the internet, to understand and speak English and, importantly, to transport delegates to Parliament. In extreme cases, it has to be conceded, the poor can be assisted by Parliament to transport their representatives to make submissions to the seat of legislative authority. But not many are aware of how to go about gettin_g such assistance.

But going back to the official opening of Parliament by the president. The people who attend can only be described as the elite or those associated with SA's elite. These would be spouses of some of the parliamentarians, envoys, some of SA's top businessmen and personalities, members of the press and other media.

Then the seats in the public gallery are insufficient. Those of this group who cannot be thus accommodated are placed in halls fitted with closedcircuit television screens which cover the proceedings in the National Assembly chamber.

Modern democracies the world over conduct similar ceremonies in similar fashion. The grandeur of the procession preceding the entry of the president in the chamber is a sight to behold. Those watching the proceedings on television have an even better view as the function is shown from many angles.

It would seem as if nothing could surpass the splendour of the procession of the speakers of the provincial legislatures, the provincial premiers, the judges of the high, supreme, constitutional and specialised courts, not to mention the presiding officers of Parliament as they precede and escort the deputy president and president.

I have always wondered to myself, though, whether those in attendance, and those watching from home and listening to the commentary on radio, are ever struck by the irony playing itself out. The occupation of the Cape Town-based parliament by an African contingent of parliamentarians is a telling symbol of the defeat of colonialism by the natives of the land.

Thus one would have expected that on such an occasion, the kings and queens of the natives of this land the Khoi, the San, the Nguni, the Sotho, the Venda, the Tsonga from whose forebears land and freedom were wrested, would be part of the tail-end of the procession, in line with African custom.

I wondered, as the president cited the dignitaries in attendance, if he was aware the monarchs were nowhere near Parliament he had cited traditional leaders as some of the guests. This anomaly in the land of Africa's rebirth will surely have to be corrected when the next address is delivered, as well as when the president is inaugurated after the elections next year.

With the completion of the long awaited white paper on traditional leadership imminent, there will now be no more excuses for the state's failure to treat the country's royalty in the manner befitting their status in the eyes of their people.

Consideration might also have to be given to the address being delivered in a stadium such as the Newlands rugby stadium. Such a venue would make the event one that truly brings government to the people.

The elite and the ordinary would be able to rub shoulders, in an imbizo as is known by the people, without feelings of guilt or alienation. Thereafter more effective ways would have to be devised to bring the indigent and marginalised to interact with the parliamentary committees.

Holomisa (A! Dilizintaba) is an ANC MP and President of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA. He writes in his personal capacity.