Dear new parliamentarians,

Congratulations.

You have been given the honour of serving your country, and serving its people.

Very few people get this chance to make laws that change lives, change lived realities, give or take away access to justice and health and safety. Yours is a job that comes with extreme power. I hope you use that as positive power to do things and make change, rather than power over people and progress.

I worked at the South African Parliament between 2013 and 2017 and I had the pleasure of working with some of you. I worked as a researcher and my job was to provide non-partisan evidence and information that could support Members of Parliament in making the best decision for the South African people. My work was focussed on women’s rights and gender equality.

During my four years at Parliament I encountered politicians from across the political spectrum who took their mandate seriously – they thirsted for evidence-based research, and they listened to civil society and individuals who told them their stories or shared research in public hearings or at Parliament to the People events.

The parliamentarians who I saw make the greatest difference were the ones that listened not just with their ears but with their hearts and minds. I was inspired by the long hours that often had to be worked, and by the distances that parliamentarians travelled to get input and to listen to the people affected by their decisions. There are many Members of Parliament who we owe a great debt of thanks to for this work.

For so many South Africans, it is hard to make our voices heard and many previous Members of Parliament were committed to giving us that opportunity and to taking seriously our ideas. This happened even at times when political parties were at ideological war in public. In private and in the committee rooms, Members put differences aside and worked hard to make the right choices. Thank you to all of you who have served in this way.

But, it would not do a service to reflect my time at Parliament as a bed of roses. That would be an incomplete picture. During my time I also encountered parliamentarians who did not, in my humble opinion, put the people they served at the core of their work.

I worked with parliamentarians who were caught up in scandals of violence, I worked with parliamentarians who did not treat those that worked with them with respect or dignity, and I worked with parliamentarians that ignored the evidence that myself and other researchers and content advisors gave them because it was not in line with their party or personal position. I worked with parliamentarians who were known for sexual harassment and who were never disciplined. I worked with parliamentarians who did not listen to the people, the academics, the organisations, or the movements who came to share the truth with them. There were people in Parliament at the time I worked there who did not uphold the constitutional values that they had a duty to uphold.

It often strikes me that when we enter a job we do not enter it on a blank slate. We bring with us our own opinions, experiences, personal grievances, and knowledge sets. Sometimes these are advantageous – they help us to make decisions based on a bigger picture. Other times the things we know can obscure the things we don’t know, or make it more difficult for us to ask for help or advice because we are afraid that being vulnerable, or showing that we don’t know everything, will make us appear weak.

As you start these five important years I have a few requests for you — our new legislators — as you do your work:

  1. Listen to the ordinary people who are affected by the laws you are considering. It is your duty to take their views back to your political parties and your committee rooms, and to hold those views as essential and paramount. If people express something that is contrary to what you had planned, be open to hearing it and seeing what a common ground might be. Please listen, with your hearts, and not only your ears.
  2. Use the resources you have at your disposal at Parliament. You have some of the brightest minds in the country working on your precinct. In the library, the communications department, the committee section, and the research unit. All of those people are working there because they know how to help you find out what you need to know to make a non-partisan informed decision. They are paid for you to ask them for information. Please ask them. And when they provide information, consider it with an open mind.
  3. Partner for progress. A committee works best when its members talk to each other as people, not as party members. It works best when you use all the skill you have in the room to process issues and make decisions. You are each other’s resources. Draw on each other.
  4. Address the corruption at Parliament, including the issues related to the former Secretary. During my time at Parliament, working relations soured as it became clear to us all working there that the way the institution was being run was not transparent or fair, and did not advance its purposes. Many incredibly valuable employees left Parliament because the working conditions were fraught, exhausting, and difficult. Last year a person took their own life because of this. This must urgently be addressed, because as I said earlier, you have excellent people there who can help you to do your job well, but many of them are unhappy and suffering.
  5. Take gender equality seriously, and make good on South Africa’s commitment to equality by thinking creatively about how to schedule and address gender equality in your committees. Over the past twenty-five years the South African Parliament has been a leader in the world in terms of women’s representation. The previous Parliament has previously had two primary committees that dealt with women and gender issues – the Multi-Party Women’s Caucus and the Portfolio Committee on Women. In the NCOP, gender issues were allocated to the Select Committee on Cooperative Governance, Traditional Affairs, Intergovernmental Relations, Women, and Youth. I think that if you can’t fit the name of a committee on a single line it’s pretty unlikely that it’s going to get to all of those issues. If, as many of you have said in your manifestos, women and gender issues are a priority, then make them a priority. Make sure that each and every committee includes a gendered analysis in their work. Make sure that the NCOP has a dedicated committee addressing women’s issues and that it is not an add-on. Make sure you are thinking about the gendered impacts of the budgets you review and pass, and of the work the department(s) you monitor undertake.

I am hopeful as this new Parliament begins its work that it will recommit to its duties, and take them forward with energy and enthusiasm. I am grateful for the work you have all done before, and I look forward to monitoring your work over the next five years.

Jen

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