Legislature tested to its limits
Parliament has taken a few tottering steps in the direction of greater responsiveness to issues in 2013, writes CRAIG DODDS
ONE WEDDING, 13 funerals, and a home that mushroomed overnight. These themes made ripples through the parliamentary year, sending shockwaves through the country and tracing the limits of the legislature’s power.
When President Jacob Zuma opened Parliament on Valentine’s Day with his State of the Nation address, his friend Atul Gupta hovered above proceedings, sitting in the Presidential Box.
When Zuma made his final appearance of the year in the National Assembly last week, he was still fielding questions about whether he had advance knowledge of plans for the Guptas to land a private jet laden with wedding guests at the Waterkloof Air Force Base.
That the president on two occasions had to stand under the public gaze and respond to questions about “Guptagate” shows Parliament can be important in giving citizens the chance to judge for themselves.
But it is in the extent to which Parliament flushes out information for people to use in their own judgments, or fails to do so, that its effectiveness can be measured.
Guptagate, Nkandla and the deaths of 13 soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR) gave Parliament the chance to respond to events that held the public imagination. Sometimes it took the opportunity, and sometimes it turned away.
It was hardly surprising, in the year before elections, that the first political salvos were fired before Parliament had even opened.
In January, the DA accused Zuma of failing to properly inform the legislature of his decision to authorise the deployment of 400 additional troops to the CAR.
What was possibly an administrative oversight (not the first), rather than the cavalier attitude to accountability the opposition accused him of, came back to haunt Zuma in March, when 13 of those soldiers died fighting rebels.
The confused rationale for the deployment Zuma had given in his letters to Parliament was fertile ground for speculation, and it was duly peppered with the seeds of scandal.
To her credit, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula saw the need for a proper explanation, and agreed to brief an urgent meeting of the joint standing committee on defence.
Ironically, though, she was thwarted in trying to give a full account by MPs from her own party and the committee chairman, who cut short the meeting because, having specially flown to Cape Town, they had planes to catch home.
The same chairman, Jerome Maake, said a week later it “might be a waste of time” for the committee to discuss the imminent deployment of troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo because it had no authority to change or reject the move.
Apart from abdicating Parliament’s responsibility to its soldiers, this appeared to contradict an earlier statement by then ANC chief whip, Mathole Motshekga, claiming that the DA’s call for a joint sitting of Parliament to debate the CAR debacle was misdirected, because the House could tamper with a deployment only following a recommendation to this effect by the committee chaired by Maake.
If partisan decisions by committee chairs sometimes constrict the flow of information, snap debates can amplify the public mood and shrink the distance between street and legislature.
In the dying months of the fourth Parliament, in the face of huge public interest and following its failure to entertain a vote of no-confidence in Zuma shortly before it closed last year, Parliament showed a more adventurous streak, flirting with relevance.
It held debates on the CAR fiasco, Guptagate, the spate of deaths of initiates and the appropriateness of the National Key Points Act in a democracy, all issues that resonated with the nation.
But, after the intervention of Motshekga, who argued it should await the outcomes of investigations by the public protector, among others, it kept a firm lid on the Nkandla scandal.
Its only attempt to grasp this nettle was to skip-pass the Public Works Department’s internal report on Nkandla to its secrethandshake club, the joint standing committee on intelligence, an information black hole that has not complied with a legal obligation to table annual reports for three years.
On Thursday, the committee made public a report that shed no light on who should be held accountable for the astronomical spending on Zuma’s home.
And when Parliament debated the Waterkloof landing, Zuma was conspicuously absent, with the ANC arguing the matter had nothing to do with him – confirming that the president often goes missing when things go Gupta.
Justice Minister Jeff Radebe accused opposition critics of jumping to conclusions without first having read the government task team’s report on the affair, but failed to mention that this report was made public only halfway through that afternoon’s debate.
Though he insisted the task team’s conclusion that officials had colluded in a “caper of their own” would stand “in any court”, the officials he fingered have yet to be convicted of any offence, and the central figure, former chief of state protocol Vusi Koloane, continues to work for the Department of International Relations and Co-operation after a demotion.
Executive contempt for Parliament has its limits, however, as ex-communications minister Dina Pule found to her cost. Though the ethics committee could offer only a slap on the wrist after finding Pule had lied about her relationship with a man who profited handsomely from it, the scandal cost her her job.
Pule offered an apology so dissembling it sounded more like a cry of injustice, but the moment showed, even in the face of thuggish attempts at intimidation, that Parliament could sometimes triumph over executive impunity.
Just last month, a committee ejected a member of the defence union because he was dressed in shorts and showed tattoos.
The House is, also, home to humanity – frail, fallible, fond of tea and sandwiches, and mortal, defiant, fixed in its resolve.
IFP MP Mario Ambrosini returned last month, after a cancer-stricken absence, to a rousing welcome in the National Assembly.
He came to rage against the dying of the light, and against the Secrecy Bill, passed once more this week.
As the public protector’s showdown with the ministers in the security cluster has shown, it remains a dodgy piece of legislation in its potential application.
In a year truncated by the demands of looming elections, Parliament took a few tottering steps in the direction of greater responsiveness to the issues of the day, and a few tottering steps backwards in the face of executive power.
When the dust has settled on next year’s elections, the contest will begin again.
VOICE OF THE PEOPLE?: The National Assembly at Parliament in Cape Town.That President Jacob Zuma, inset, had to stand under the public gaze on two occasions and respond to questions about ‘Guptagate’ shows Parliament can be important in giving citizens the chance to judge for themselves, says the writer.
NO-GO AREA: President Jacob Zuma’s private Nkandla homestead at KwaNxamalala, in KwaZulu-Natal.
HIGH PLACES: The Gupta family wedding guests arrived at Waterkloof Airforce Base, but the president claims he had no idea of the landing.
CREDITABLE: Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.