President’s day of fun and amusement in Parliament

By Osiame Molefe 14 September 2011

President Jacob Zuma was all giggles in the National Assembly on Tuesday when he appeared to answer members’ questions. The President at times laughed before and after his responses. He even laughed while some members were posing their questions. Sometimes, Zuma was the only one in the room laughing, prompting OSIAME MOLEFE to ask the obvious question.

A cynic would say that the President was laughing in the face of democratic process as the Speaker of Parliament, Max Sisulu, rebuffed any advances from members of the opposition to quiz him on the Public Protector’s report into the SAPS building leases. So robust was Sisulu’s defence that at one point he called the findings of the Public Protector mere “allegations” and suggested that they were subject to proper investigation by the police and public works parliamentary committees, who are reviewing the report.

Someone even more cynical would say that Zuma was laughing all the way to the bank as he so passionately defended his family’s right to do business with the state through what has become known as Zuma Inc.

But luckily, all the cynics have been called to order in an orderly way.

On DA parliamentary leader Athol Trollip’s questions on how he intends to reign in Zuma Inc. the President said, “I’m sure the honourable member wants us to chase shadows, to try to create impressions and make them facts, because we have got to have facts and say here is a thing that has been done wrongly and it must be investigated. These members (families of the executive) have rights which are equal to other citizens. Why should they be subjected to such kind of treatment (scrutiny above the norm or an outright ban on business dealings with the state)?”

And you know what? He’s right. No precedent exists to ban the President’s or any members of the executive’s family from transacting with the state. There are regulations over conflicts of interest, which require disclosure and, where conflict exists or has the potential to exist, recusal from the contract-awarding process. If these regulations have been complied with, Khulubuse, Duduzane or any other Zuma can freely establish business relations with the state.

In fact, Idasa’s political information and monitoring service has repeatedly identified implementation and monitoring as the largest failing in ethics regulations, not the regulations themselves.

But of course what this leaves room for is the perception that when someone with the surname Zuma wins government work, they have used the name to exert undue influence on the decision-makers. And in the court of public opinion, perception – whether shadow or not – is king.

It also doesn’t help the President’s case as a moral or ethical authority when he allows the debates around known cases of breaches to be shut down, as Sisulu did on the Public Protector’s report or when he allows the ANC caucus to claim puzzlingly the “assertion that the minister (of public works) has committed illegal actions has not been substantiated by any finding by anybody”.

Outraged, Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota refused to sit down and took the President and Sisulu to task. He said, “You may not characterise the report and the findings of the Public Protector as allegations. They are findings. It means allegations have been investigated and findings have been made. Please correct yourself, sir”.

The opposition also made the point that the Public Protector called on Zuma to act against public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde and police commissioner Bheki Cele, but Zuma was all too happy to have Sisulu make it go away. Despite promises that he is working on it behind the scenes, to date the President has still not acted on the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s recommendations or given any indication as to how he will proceed.

Zuma also laughed heartily as he skirted Lekota’s questions on cooperative governance and traditional affairs minister Shicelo Shiceka’s R335,000 trip to Switzerland, allegedly to visit his girlfriend. Zuma said that the matter is still under investigation by the Public Protector and he would only comment once she filed her report. Unfortunately this gives no comfort due to the precedent he has set in his failure to respond to Madonsela’s SAPS lease report.

Maybe what tickles the President most is how his authority is seemingly near absolute. How no matter how much noise the opposition or civil society makes, or how many reports the Public Protector or any other Chapter Nine institution files, conditions are such that he is seemingly answerable to no one. That would be enough to make a man with a seat as plum as his laugh, and the rest of us, well, cry. DM



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