MDGs and the Long Road to Parliament

When I received the call from my colleague Gladys Mirugi-Mukundi, at the Socio-Economic Rights Project based at the Community Law Centre 
(CLC) asking me to attend the ‘Consultative Seminar on the Role of Parliament & Provincial Legislatures in the Achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)', I balked at the idea. For starters, seminars in Parliament are not particularly enjoyable; they are pretty stuffy affairs with protocols and lots of dull PowerPoint presentations and even less engaging speakers. Then there is also the matter of the event being held in Cape Town, but maybe that is a blog for another time…

So after a feeble protest attempt, I agreed and this morning found me in the Old Assembly Chamber in Parliament and there is a palpable buzz in the historic room as old comrades from provincial and national government, civil society and para-government agencies gather for two days of intense dialogue and debate about the role of Parliament and the provincial legislatures in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The gathering itself is remarkable given that to date in South Africa, the MDGs and the entire national dialogue about them has been limited to pompous NGO types, even more pompous government officials and sometimes a very bewildered journalist from the weekend newspapers, who looks like he wants to be on another assignment.

The other aspect of the MDGs has been the contestation between civil society and usually national government in the form of the Presidency and/or Statistics South Africa (Stats SA). This tension plays out as civil society usually claiming incorrect statistics and government claiming subversion when NGOs dare to challenge the basis and analysis of the annual country report. The absence of Stats SA on the programme was also a good sign, given that last year, civil society organisations rejected their annual country report based on the lack of any realism to their data and analysis[1]

So it was a welcome change to my perceptions when I heard Mr. C T Frolick, MP, House Chairperson: Committees, Oversight & ICT (National Assembly), set the tone for the day when he succinctly declared that the seminar was a exercise to improve oversight and find ways to improve what was being done all over SA to meet the MDGs. Frolick noted that human development is key to social and economic progress and the MDGs were a key aspect of that kind of global partnership for development. He further noted that the current MDG Country Report may show that SA is set to achieve some goals but other reports show that we have challenges and suggest a stronger role for Parliaments at local, provincial and national level in ensuring greater oversight of implementation.

I was indeed already feeling better about attending – it seems that MDGs are now finally, firmly and palpably on the agenda for Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of the Provincial Legislatures (MPLs).

Frolick ended by noting that all parliamentary committees have been requested to exercise direct oversight on achievement of MDGs, in the scope of their focus areas to ensure delivery of the targets. He reminded the delegates of the need for a strong focus on the role of women and added that proposals from the seminar report will focus on ways to strengthen delivery of the MDGs with other stakeholders and more coordinated oversight approach.

But it was the next speaker that truly blew me away, it was great to hear Minister in the Presidency: National Planning Commission, Trevor Manuel, sound like an NGO type when he said he has 'maverick views' on the MDGs and proceed to give life to that by stating that he felt that the MDGs were  'important but insufficient' in SA, where we have the Freedom Charter and the Constitution as key pledges of a better life for all. Manuel also noted that we have adequate resources in SA for the delivery of the MDGs and that by doing so, we must remember that they serve as a pledge of democracy to the people of SA.

Again, a breath of fresh air, as what Manuel said has a lot to do with the notion over the past few years that government and NGOs are not seeing eye to eye in regard to the localisation of the MDGs and their achievement. It is a great achievement for NGOs and civil society in general that senior government officials are now not just aware but also promoting the achievement of the MDGs as a means of realising the Freedom Charter. It feels like the divide that seemed to exist between government and civil society in the past few years is now well and truly on the way to being done away with and finally NGOs and government can once again, as in the heydays of the 90’s work together to build a great country.

Manuel was however not the only speaker who had me listening, Ms J C Moloi-Moropa, MP Chairperson: Portfolio Committee on Public Service & Administration also managed to recognise the role of civil society in championing the MDGs for many years and also noted that one of the outcomes of this process would be the recommendation that government ratify international treaties that protect and promote socio-economic rights as well.

It was however, Ms B N Dlulane, MP, Chairperson of Parliament’s Multiparty Women’s Caucus who finally and very clearly noted that it was a great moment for Parliament that this seminar was in fact happening as the MDGs were in the past only something championed by NGOs and a few members of Parliament. Dlulane’s acknowledgement is indeed music to the ears of social service and development workers across the country, working daily to give life to the MDGs.

In all, I am glad I attended the seminar, despite my initial reservations as at least, I have seen and heard first-hand that all the great work that has gone on for so many years now in civil society and by NGOs in particular, is finally bearing fruit. It is a privilege to be part of this moment in our history, where Parliament, the representatives of the people are in fact taking seriously their role in making sure we deliver the ideals of the Freedom Charter and Constitution to the people. Phambili – Sisonke!

I hope my wonderful experience of finding comrades among Parliamentarians today will continue tomorrow, when I will bring you an update on some of the other presentations, including from SANGOCO, SALGA, Centre for African Heritage Studies and the ICESCR Ratification Campaign. You can view a copy of the programme here.

- Rajesh Latchman is Coordinator at the National Welfare Forum and serves as a volunteer Convenor of GCAP-SA.

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