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Parliament: Voice of the people in South Africa’s international relations?

dr lesley mastersThe start of the 5th Democratic Parliament has seen a great deal of attention given to the 'firebrand' role of the EFF and the new party's expected role in Parliament. It has also seen media attention given to the salaries, car, travel, and housing allowances of the incoming (and returning) Members of Parliament (MPs). As Parliament normalises following the pomp and circumstance of the official swearing in of 400 new MPs, the work of oversight, passing legislation, and facilitating public participation begins. With general public disillusionment of Parliament following scandals ('travelgate'), and media reports of low attendance by MPs and long recess periods, the new Members face a particular challenge in carving out a central role for the institution within the public conscious.

 

In shaping South Africa's international relations Parliament has had a mixed record. In its role of oversight and engagement in policy there were some early successes for the first Democratic Parliament including engagement on the importance of human rights and democracy in informing Pretoria's international approach. Parliament is now often only drawn into debates once events have unfolded as in the case of the death of South African soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR). Yet with its mandate including the oversight in processing and passing legislation, and monitoring the financial and non-financial performance of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), Parliament can play a central role in shaping the policy decision making process.

While engagement in the foreign policy process has been mixed, there has been a slow increase in the focus on Parliament as an actor in regional, continental and international forums. Initially Parliament's international relations were coordinated by the Office of the Speaker. With growing recognition of the need for more effective international participation alongside its international counterparts an International Relations and Protocol Division (IRPD) has been created, which has itself moved from an initial focus on administrative support to one that provides analysis and 'strategic advice'.

To date Parliament's engagement includes the Pan-African Parliament; SADC Parliamentary Forum; Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), and the African, Caribbean, Pacific (ACP)-EU Forum. It has also engaged visiting parliamentarians and participated in high-level international conferences such as the Climate Change negotiations (COP17) hosted by South Africa.

Yet Parliament's international relations should be understood as more than just Parliament-to-Parliament engagement. As representative of the people and ensuring 'government by the people under the Constitution' Parliamentary diplomacy offers an opportunity to bridge the gap between the domestic constituency and the international milieu, providing a voice for the people in international relations.

In making international relations more accessible the Portfolio Committee on International Relations (2009-2014) has taken steps towards engaging local communities through outreach programmes as well as engagement with policy analysts and research organisations. Nevertheless, with limited resources this has been fairly restricted. With the draft White Paper on South Africa's foreign policy currently under review in Parliament, there is an opportunity for wider discussion and consultation with the public including through public hearings and the invitation of submissions.

Representing the voice of the people has a 'soft power' potential for South Africa in promoting the country internationally as a vibrant parliamentary democracy. South Africa's parliamentary diplomacy is, however, still in its infancy. As it develops there are a number of challenges that need consideration. As with parliaments around the world, Members will need to address the challenge of overcoming political agendas. In addition building sustained people-to-people engagement has had a tendency to be ad hoc as a result of the nature of parliamentary work and the myriad of forums which call for participation.

Despite these challenges parliamentary diplomacy presents a platform for South Africa to pursue its foreign policy priorities in addition to the more traditional diplomatic channels. It has the potential to strengthen people-to-people ties, deepen country relationships, and MPs may even approach discussions through their networks addressing issues that may not perhaps be pursued by official representatives.

As South Africa's 5th Democratic Parliament begins, and is drawn in to an increasingly widening range of international activities, debate should be had on the understanding of parliamentary diplomacy for South Africa. Indeed, to be truly representative of the people when it comes to international relations, thinking will need to go beyond parliament-to-parliament engagement to managing the two level game in bridging the gap between domestic and international relations.

Dr Lesley Masters is the Senior Researcher at Institute for Global Dialogue Associated with UNISA

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