Oscar van Heerden | Our citadel of democracy unrestored six months after the fire - Financial Daily News Site

Oscar van Heerden | Our citadel of democracy unrestored six months after the fire

Our citadel of democracy, Parliament, must be restored immediately, so that those houses of Parliament can reflect our values and defend our rights as citizens, writes Oscar van Heerden.

Amid all the furore of the Presidential farm debacle and Cyril Ramaphosa’s imminent departure from the West Wing of the Union Building, according to some, I found myself wondering what was happening with our burnt Parliament buildings.

The history of Parliament house in Cape Town goes back to the founding of the Union in 1910. 

On 2 January 2022, exactly six months ago, an arsonist set fire to Parliament and basically severely damaged the new National Assembly building. In addition, the gymnasium of the old assembly building was destroyed, and several floors suffered water and smoke damage. This is our bastion of democracy, where our rights were enshrined through both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in 1996. Where our first black President, Mr Nelson Mandela was elected in 1994 and so much more. I don’t have to remind our government that its repair and restoration are uppermost in the minds of South Africans. 

When I inquired from some parliamentarians as to what progress has been made, I got a very unsatisfactory answer. Apparently, very slow progress is happening with regards to making sure that our Parliament is back to its former glory.

Is this really time for playing politics? Or are we yet again seeing a situation where corruption is envisaged in this critical project as we saw with the PPE tenders as well as the disaster management funds.

READ | Pieter du Toit: Parliament inferno –  Where’s the outrage and the urgency? Where’s the president?

One would have thought that our government would have wanted to demonstrate their resolve to quickly finish this refurbishment of such an important seat of democracy.

In my opinion, I would have wanted to see the very next opening of Parliament in February 2023 taking place in our very Parliament house. How foolish of me. To think that Public Works would have declared this project a national priority and get the job done is clearly wishful thinking on my part.

There is so much work that must be done by this citadel of democracy.

In keeping with my previous article with regards to poverty levels in the country, it is our Parliament that much defend our rights of ordinary people. Here I’m talking about regulating bank charges, data costs, prices of paraffin/petrol, call centres placing the burden on clients and regulating the ratio between the highest-paid and the lowest-paid employees and finally the prices of wheat/flour. These are some of the interventions we require from our parliamentarians to ease the burden of abject poverty on our nation.

Let me start with the argument for regulating bank charges. This is an outdated idea and basically means that banks, on the one hand, invest our money and thus make more money for themselves because we derive absolutely no benefit from such investments and on the other hand every time we want to manage our money whether through cash transfers and payments of sorts, we must pay for this service. In other words, we are screwed twice. The profit margins of this to our banks is enormous. It must stop!

Bank and data costs

Parliament must enact legislation that basically says, bank charges will be ‘phased out’ completely over the next three years. After which there will be no bank charges on private citizens. Companies can continue paying because of the large and bulk payments administered by the banks on their behalf. And before some argue that this is an absurd idea, bear in mind that there are no bank charges in most of the developed countries in the world.

As for data costs, this is simply criminal in South Africa. Telecommunications companies have been getting away with this for decades now and the fact that more than 50% of their bottom line profits derive from data costs must stop too. 

Regulations are what is needed not spectrum. We are sold a narrative that says, now that we have auctioned the spectrum to the highest bidders, data costs will plummet. Fat chance of that ever happening. Watch this space.

Government must take uncomfortable decisions in order to assist our poor people genuinely. Regulate that over and above spectrum, data costs will be eradicated over the next three years. Meaning, companies themselves must pay for the provision of data and not transfer that onus onto clients. Again, this is how it is regulated in Europe. And before Vodacom want to cry foul, why is it that data costs in Nigeria are literally none existent, just because they service a much larger client base there. It must stop!

Another matter that really grates me and must be regulated as soon as possible is ‘call centres’. No problem with the efficiency of call centres but why must the burden of paying for such calls be transferred onto the clients again. You must call the company which you pay monthly debits for the service, you must hang on sometimes for minutes, when the call cuts accidentally, you must call them back and not them returning the call of a valued customer, and the fact that all call centres don’t have a call back facility is criminal. This must stop Parliamentarians.

READ | Oscar van Heerden: The poor’s winter of discontent – We are heading for a meltdown

Yes, you must stop quibbling about matters of forex found on farms and direct your attention to issues that matter. That will make a real change in people’s lives. The price and subsidies of petrol/paraffin/wheat and flour goes without saying. This is hitting the poor people the hardest and drastic interventions are required now.

Finally, like in most Nordic countries, we must keep specific track of the gap between the highest-paid employees and the lowest-paid employees. This one I confess is a very tricky one but keeping track of it on a database which can be accessed by many will be a start to inculcating an idea that says, this gap cannot be allowed to widen and grow to unsustainable levels going forward.

Huge fines are not enough

I want to also reiterate a point I’ve made before and that is that collusionary practices must be severely regulated. A huge fine is not enough. We must see corrective action being taken too. In other words, if it is proven that there was collusion around the price of flour and hence bread prices spiked in recent months, then the guilty parties must indeed pay a considerable fine, but the price of the bread must also then be adjusted back to its original price before the collusion.

We don’t see this element in the consequence management of collusions. Because all these companies do is factor in the eventual fine, pay it and viola they get what they always wanted, which was for the bread price to increase. This must stop!

In the end, our citadel of democracy must be restored immediately, we want to see work commencing on site immediately and we want those houses of Parliament to reflect our values again. We must not waiver and I implore the Minister of Public Works to start working.

Lets have a people’s Parliament again that caters for the needs and wants of the poorest of the poor, first and foremost.    

– Dr Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He is currently the Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Fort Hare.

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