In democratic countries such as South Africa, the legislature or Parliament plays a very important role. The members of Parliament are elected to represent the people of the country. They also act as the voice of the people. Parliament, therefore, is accountable to the people of South Africa.
Every five years the people of South Africa get an opportunity to cast their votes for a new Parliament. Each new Parliament is numbered. For example, in the elections of 1994 people voted for the First Parliament. The Second Parliament came into existence after the general elections in 1999 and the Third Parliament in 2004. In 2009, people will again vote and that Parliament will be called the Fourth Parliament.
Parliament consists of two Houses called the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces. Each House has its own distinct role and functions, as set out in the Constitution. However, there are many instances when the two Houses act together to conduct what is called “joint business”.
In the national sphere of government, the legislative power of the Republic is vested in Parliament. In other words, Parliament is responsible for making and passing laws. The National Assembly also chooses the President and is a national forum where issues are debated publicly. The Assembly also has to scrutinise and oversee the actions of the executive. The National Council of Provinces, on the other hand, must ensure that provincial interests are taken into account in the national sphere of government. It does that by taking part in the law-making process and by being the forum where issues affecting the provinces are debated publicly.
Members of Parliament have freedom of speech, subject only to the rules of the Houses, when they participate in committees or debates. They have that right to ensure that they, as elected public representatives, can bring important matters to the attention of the Houses and the public. To protect this right, members enjoy certain privileges and protection in terms of an Act of Parliament called the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act, 2004.
Furthermore, the importance of the public in the work of Parliament is emphasised by the fact that the Constitution instructs Parliament to facilitate public participation in the law-making process and to take reasonable measures for public access to its committee meetings and House sittings.
Another important power given to Parliament by the Constitution is the authority to makes its own rules and orders and to direct its own internal proceedings. Each House therefore has a set of rules and orders according to which it operates, while Parliament also has Joint Rules that directs joint business.