Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures

The re-introduction of multi-party politics in the early 1990s in Africa led to a renewed interest in institutions of democracy. This auspicious wave of pluralism has not, however, produced effective and efficient Parliaments to underpin the democratisation process. On the contrary, most of Africa’s young democracies are still characterised by dominant executives, not-so-independent judiciaries, and weak Parliaments.

Takawira Musavengana's picture

Team Leader: Democracy and Governance Cluster

March 8th, 2012

The re-introduction of multi-party politics in the early 1990s in Africa led to a renewed interest in institutions of democracy. This auspicious wave of pluralism has not, however, produced effective and efficient Parliaments to underpin the democratisation process. On the contrary, most of Africa’s young democracies are still characterised by dominant executives, not-so-independent judiciaries, and weak Parliaments.

Without the full development of the three branches of government – the executive, legislative and judicial – prospects for democratic consolidation on the continent are limited. Although it cannot be denied that democratisation itself does not necessarily produce effective Parliaments, all democracies today have a Parliament in one form or another.

Recognising Parliament or the legislature as one of critical institutions for democratic governance, indeed the glue that holds together the state and society, the SADC Parliamentary Forum has developed these important minimum standards on the constitutional and legal framework, political imperatives as well as institutional, financial, material and human resources requirements for truly democratic Parliaments in southern Africa.

An ideal Parliament undertakes the following key functions:

(a)    Holding the executive to account through the oversight function of executive ministries and departments;

(b)    Representing  the nation in its diversity, either of social groupings or constituencies;

(c)    Making laws for the good governance of the country, including private members’ bills;

(d)    Approving national budgets, taxation policy and monitoring public expenditure;

(e)    Ratifying and domesticating international conventions and treaties; and,

(f)     Resolving conflict and disputes through peaceful mechanisms.

There is consensus among scholars that the performance of Parliament may be measured qualitatively by examining three essential factors: its impact on policy, the degree to which it acts independently in setting its own agenda, and the extent to which societal interests influence the decision making process.

In southern Africa, the executive generally dominates Parliament including even setting its agenda, appointing parliamentary staff, and determining its calendar. In some cases, the large dual membership of ministers to the executive and legislative branches of government as well as their proportionately large number, have resulted in decreased parliamentary oversight capacity.  Invariably, the executive produces most of the bills, with private members’ bills remaining a rare phenomenon and expensive to draft.

In many instances, Parliament is primarily a reactive institution rather than proactive one, largely unable to respond sufficiently to emerging challenges, opportunities and national emergencies. The Westminster-inspired systems of government that are prevalent in most countries of southern Africa tend to compromise the principle of separation of powers. Under these systems, ministers are most often drawn from members of the legislature, which, ironically, should oversee their performance. While there are benefits to this feature, this may limit the oversight functions of Parliament on the executive.

Citizens have high expectations from their parliamentary representatives and Parliaments in general.  In addition to the traditional role of legislator, parliamentarians are also expected to perform constituency services, which is perhaps one of the most influential functions of a parliamentarian in Africa. In many parts of rural, agriculturally based African countries, parliamentarians are expected to be the providers of social services and to facilitate financing for development projects with their personal resources.  This limits the capacity of parliamentarians to perform their other equally important parliamentary roles.  These competing and often conflicting roles impose great challenges on parliamentarians, who in many cases have very little or often no human or material support to facilitate their work.

While some African Parliaments have begun to exert greater autonomy and oversight over the executive, the role of Parliaments in southern African remains constrained by very powerful executives. Existing arrangements for budget consideration in most southern African countries do not provide Parliaments with meaningful powers, documentation and time for effective scrutiny.  Ironically, some Parliaments cannot even determine their own budgets, let alone receive timely resources to efficiently and effectively undertake their mandates. While executives have begun to acknowledge input from civil society into the budget process, it is often expected that the budget passes through as opposed to being scrutinised and passed by Parliament.

In some cases, parliamentary development has been limited by Parliament’s constitutional powers. Although some Parliaments may have constitutional powers, they may not have the capacity or willingness to exercise these powers due to the political dynamics of strong parties and/or strong Presidents. Weak political parties and inadequate human, financial and infrastructural resources severely limit the capacity of Parliament and its committees to exercise its constitutionally mandated functions.


The challenges highlighted above bring into sharp focus the following issues:

(a) How can Parliament - as the representative institution and voice of the citizenry - be strengthened and the principle of separation of powers be better observed?

(b) What are the minimum constitutional, legal, normative and institutional arrangements for a democratic legislature?

(c) How should a democratic Parliament relate to other arms of government in general and the executive in particular?

(d)What are the most critical organisational, financial, human resources and operational requirements necessary for optimal professional parliamentary performance?

(e) What structural arrangements should be put in place to enable political parties, civil society organisations and interest groups to influence the business of Parliament?

On the basis of the above challenges and related issues, the SADC Parliamentary Forum proposes minimum benchmarks for effective parliamentary performance and development in Southern Africa. These benchmarks set forth the parliamentary reform agenda for all member Parliaments. They are intended to provide a mirror for self-assessment, measuring the performance of SADC Parliaments. Integral in this process is the overarching objective of strengthening the capacity, role and functional autonomy of Parliaments as the elected institution in government and in governance.

The domestication of these benchmarks in Southern Africa, through relevant parliamentary and constitution reforms and the reorientation of value systems, will lend true meaning to the axiom “Governments for the people, of the people and by the people!”

The development of these benchmarks benefitted from financial and technical support from the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Programme for Parliamentary Strengthening, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the European Parliament, Africa Capacity Building Foundation and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), among others. This publication was made possible through the generous support of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA).

About the author(s)

Takawira (Taka) as he is commonly known, brings to the organization 15 years of experience combining policy analysis, technical advice, advocacy, programme management in parliamentary development, security sector governance, elections and political participation, human rights, constitution-making, and civil society development. He is joining Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) from UNDP Tanzania as a Technical Specialist (Legislature Support Project) based on the Zanzibar archipelago. Before that, he was the Human Rights and Democracy Building Programme Manager at OSISA. In that capacity he was responsible for inter alia, leadership in the foundation’s overall strategy in promoting long-term systemic change in law, policy and practice to promote and protect human rights and build democracy and democratic governance in 10 southern African countries. Taka holds a Masters Degree in Public and Development Management (Governance and Public Policy).


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