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

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - PEOPLE -

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.

craig.dodds@inl.co.za

PIC­TURE: MATTHEW JOR­DAAN

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.

NOVEM­BER 16 2013

PIC­TURE: BONGIWE MCHUNU

NO-GO AREA: Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s pri­vate Nkandla homestead at KwaNxa­m­alala, in KwaZulu-Natal.

PIC­TURE: PHILL MAGAKOE

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.

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