Anything to declare to Parliament?
Registrar of financial interests says things have changed since the transition years as more MPs accumulate property, shares and other forms of wealth
The parliamentary register that records the financial interests of members of Parliament has changed dramatically over the past 18 years as MPs accumulate property, shares and other forms of wealth.
This is the view of Fazela Mohamed, who has run Parliament’s register of members’ interests since its inception.
“It was very interesting in the transition years,” she told City Press during an exclusive interview this week.
“The majority of MPs were from the liberation movement and nobody really had business interests, very few had property, so there was really very little to declare,” she said.
Back then, things were very different. Mohamed remembered how the ANC once barred all MPs from accepting free satellite TV subscriptions from a company whose broadcasting licence was up for renewal.
“That year, the Icasa [Independent Communications Authority of SA] licence was up for consideration and the governing party felt it could undermine the integrity of Parliament as an institution. So those were different times.”
For the past 18 years, Mohamed has played an advisory and consultative role to MPs on the requirements of the code of ethical conduct.
She also compiles the register of disclosures of financial interests for members.
“The importance of the code is that it permits business activity. It says there is a recognition that MPs are not here permanently. It’s a check and balance in a democracy.
“It says you are allowed to have financial interests because you realise people move in and out of politics, and that when you leave, there is another life for you out there,” she said.
Among the 60 cases brought against MPs for breaching the code of ethical conduct, those involving former communications minister Dina Pule and former ANC chief whip Tony Yengeni stand out.
During the investigation into Pule’s breach of the code of conduct, Mohamed and her co-chairperson of the joint committee on ethics and members’ interests at the time, Ben Turok, were assigned bodyguards because they were receiving anonymous threats.
“There have been some interesting moments in this job and it’s usually around what I would call implementation of the code,” she said.
Pule had the book thrown at her for failing to declare her romantic relationship with businessman Phosane Mngqibisa.
He had benefited from her department while she was communications minister. This included a lucrative subcontract for the ICT Indaba in Cape Town. Mohamed said she always advised MPs to think about the consequences for themselves and their careers if there was a major breach of the code of conduct, especially in failing to declare major financial interests or conflicts of interest.
“One can’t make a presumption about anybody’s understanding of ethics. It’s difficult, but I always tell members in the workshops to think about the headline in a newspaper on Sunday. What will it say?
“Think about your name and the headline next to it, and make a decision based on that, because when you choose public life, you have to make a sacrifice as it is a choice,” she explained.
While MPs were previously allowed to bid for contracts from the state, the new code of ethical conduct, which came into effect in November 2014, now prohibits them from doing business with the state.
“We are trying to manage improper influence in achieving [state] contracts and to ensure that we don’t undermine the kind of just administration in awarding tenders. That’s what we are trying to do, and to prevent a conflict of interest.”
Meanwhile, one of the longest-serving MPs said the chaos experienced in Parliament this year made this the ideal time to change the rules.
Nyami Booi, a member of the subcommittee on rules, said at the top of the list should be the clarification of the roles and powers of the Speaker.
“A review of the rules has been taking place for some time, but the most important thing we need to establish is the extent of the Speaker’s authority.”
Speaker Baleka Mbete has come under fire for calling in extra security personnel, and for booting out disruptive Economic Freedom Fighters MPs from the National Assembly this year. Opposition parties have called for Mbete’s removal, saying she is biased towards the ANC.
“Members of Parliament need to be able to express themselves, but it’s different when they start holding Parliament to ransom in terms of points of order. To achieve that balance is going to be difficult,” Booi said.
Other parliamentary rules that are up for review are: a dress code for MPs; time limits for President Jacob Zuma and his ministers’ oral replies to questions; and allowing for mini debates when burning issues arise.
– Additional reporting by Liesl Peyper
FULL DISCLOSURE Fazela Mohamed, who runs Parliament’s register of members’ interests, is in charge of making sure that MPs understand their code of ethics and that they comply with it