It’s a people’s Parliament
It appears that Mr Transparency, Fikile Majola, is turning his back on an assurance that the nuclear procurement project would not be conducted in a clandestine manner in Parliament. In a meeting of the energy portfolio committee, which he chairs, he announced this week that the doors would be closed when the department briefed the committee on the nuclear build plans.
This week’s meeting was controversial in itself. As it got under way, Majola said that the briefing by PetroSA, on a damning forensic report of its R14.5 billion loss the previous year, would be closed because of “commercially sensitive” considerations.
Closing the door on the public is not unique to the energy committee. A few weeks ago, the media were ordered out of a meeting of the communications portfolio committee without explanation. The chair adjourned the meeting and said the committee would reconvene immediately behind closed doors. A similar incident took place two years ago.
And PetroSA and Parliament came under fire in June last year after journalist Carol Paton was refused access to the state oil company’s high-security headquarters to cover a committee meeting that had been convened there, not on the parliamentary precinct.
The Press Gallery Association (PGA) has written to the Speaker to request an urgent meeting to discuss the latest incidents. The Constitution is clear. Parliament may not exclude the media “unless it is reasonable and justifiable to do so in an open and democratic society”.
A closed meeting should be an exception. For instance, there are constitutional grounds for secrecy when witnesses who fear victimisation appear before the parliamentary inquiry into the SABC.
But these decisions require careful consideration with protocols followed and explanations provided. If not, the exception can slide into the norm.
We need to keep on our toes. Former chair of the portfolio committee on cooperative governance and traditional affairs Dumisile Nhlengethwa learnt the hard way after ordering journalist Andisiwe to leave a meeting three years ago. Makinana knew her rights and refused to budge. After a 10-minute standoff, Nhlengethwa gave up. In a letter of apology via the PGA, Nhlengethwa said that the misunderstanding was “regrettable” and that she was “very aware that ours is a Parliament of the people”.
The topic that Nhlengethwa had hoped to keep under wraps was a proposal for traditional leaders to have “tools of the trade” that included washing machines. The stakes are much higher when it comes to the nuclear build programme, amid warnings it could cripple the country.
ANC MPs should be reminded that, in terms of the nuclear plans, a pledge of transparency was made – in black and white – in the ANC’s 2015 National General Council policy documents. Majola cannot turn his back on us now when the country can least afford it.
Heard is Media 24’s parliamentary editor