The High Level Panel shows how far we’ve come, and the road ahead.

In 2017, I was privileged to form part of the support team for the High Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change, led by former President Kgalema Motlanthe. The High Level Panel was a project mandated by the Speaker’s Forum, which represents the legislative sector in South Africa.

In recent years, the executive branch of the state, what we refer to as government, and increasingly, the judicial branch, have been at the forefront of public life in South Africa. The legislative sector – the National Assembly, the National Council of Provinces and the provincial legislatures – has not been as prominent in the public imagination. There is the spectacle and ceremony of major events in the Parliamentary timetable such as the State of the Nation and the Budget votes, but when it comes to the core functions of the legislature – making and passing laws, and providing oversight over government – the sector seems to have been on the back foot. Lately some high profile Parliamentary hearings, such as those into the public broadcaster, have shown what an effective and active Parliament can achieve. Indeed, commissioning the High Level Panel was a wise and strategic move by the legislative sector.

The High Level Panel, comprised of eminent South Africans who have served in business, government, politics, academia and civil society, was tasked with reviewing the immense legislative output of the post-apartheid era. Over a thousand laws have been passed by the democratic state in pursuit of the ideals of the Constitution to improve ‘the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person’. This is elaborated in the Bill of Rights, which spells out a range of fundamental rights, including second-generation socioeconomic rights that promote equal life chances.

The law is an interesting lens through which to view a society. It sets the trajectory for the economy, for development and for social relations. Colonial and apartheid laws such as the Masters and Servants Act of 1856, the Mines and Works Act of 1911, the Natives Land Act of 1913, the Bantu Education Act of 1953 and countless similar pieces of legislation created a viciously exploitative economy and society. The question becomes whether the extensive legislative output since 1994 has done enough to reverse that legacy? It is also important to examine the unintended consequences of this historic effort at reform.

The outcome of the High Level Panel’s work is a treasure trove of data, stories and analysis available online. The record of public hearings, commissioned reports, written submissions and ultimately the report with recommendations in four main areas: the economy, land reform, spatial inequality, and social cohesion and nation building, provides a snapshot of how far the country has come, but also the long road ahead.

The simple answer to the questions above, to quote the report, is that:

“The evidence presented shows that the ills of the past are being reproduced in post-apartheid society, despite extensive legislative reform. In answering this question, it is important to note that the evidence also highlights some improvements in outcomes. For example, the mortality rate of children under five has improved, as has access to education (Stats SA, 2014). But the observed changes have not dented the deep inequities in the quality of services received in many instances, nor have they made fundamental shifts in outcomes as seen in evidence presented in the report. Thus, in some areas society appears to be ‘progressively realising’ the inclusive vision of the Constitution, while in others there is a need to accelerate fundamental change, as the very title of the Panel suggests.” 

The High Level Panel provides an extensive set of recommendations on the country’s challenges.

I am particularly drawn to the recommendations on codifying the National Development Plan into law, reforming the electoral system to make it more responsive to constituencies, opening up appointment processes in the executive to public scrutiny, devising a land records system that works for the poor and tackling spatial inequality. 

Implementing the work of the High Level Panel calls on more than legislators and the executive. This provides opportunity for the business sector to contribute to fundamental change, especially towards the greatest post-apartheid challenge, the effective implementation of progressive policies.

Find the Report of the High Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change at www.parliament.gov.za/high-level-panel

“The evidence presented shows that the ills of the past are being reproduced in post-apartheid society...” 

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