South Africa

Securocracy, Parliament edition: Where the ceilings have eyes

By Marianne Merten 22 May 2017

Cameras amid the National Assembly light fittings trained on MPs. Police detectives contravening the law, and sanctity of Parliament, in pursuit of a minister’s complaint over a tweet. And another round of rumours on the parliamentary grapevine over whether or not Parliament’s top administrator really has the security clearance for the job. Beneath the veneer of the people’s Parliament, the institution appears to be unravelling. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

Four police investigators from Gauteng arrived unannounced at Parliament on Friday, wanting to take a warning statement from DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen over his 18 March tweet, “My money’s on [State Security Minister David] Mahlobo and the kak-handed SSA [State Security Agency]. Signal jammer, imaginary social media villains and inept break-ins. Intimidation of the judiciary”.

By simply pitching up, the SAPS officials contravened the 2004 Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act. Sections 4 and 5 of that law require anyone, including the Sheriff of the Court, to obtain the explicit permission of the presiding officers before coming to Parliament.

According to Section 5, “A person may not within the precincts (a) execute or serve or tender for service any summons, subpoena or other process… without the express permission of, or in accordance with the directives of, the Speaker [of the National Assembly] or the Chairperson [of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP)] or a person authorised by the Speaker or the Chairperson.”

Section 4 allows security services on the precinct for “any policing function”, but “only with the permission and under the authority of the Speaker or the Chairperson”, unless there is “an immediate danger to the life or safety of any person or any property”.

These statutory provisions are the reason why not even subpoenas for pap geld or debt recovery are served on MPs unless there is express permission to do so. Nor are legal papers served in court cases involving Parliament without official consent which, for example, according to communication seen by Daily Maverick earlier this year, delayed serving documents in the Labour Court case involving members of the Parliamentary Protection Services against the employment of the so-called bouncers, officially hired as chamber support staff, at better terms and conditions.

The police officers from Gauteng’s detective services – one of them confirmed the “visit”, but referred questions to another of the team, who could not be reached on Sunday – were unable to produce such express authorisation from the presiding officers, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, who is also ANC national chairperson, NCOP chairperson Thandi Modise, or anyone authorised by them to grant such permission.

I am completely flummoxed by this. I never heard of police violating the parliamentary precinct,” Steenhuisen told Daily Maverick. “It’s nothing but intimidation tactics by Mahlobo and abuse of police resources. I think about all the South Africans still waiting for police to come take statements or fingerprints.”

The visit by police at Steenhuisen’s parliamentary offices is the latest twist in the tweet saga following the theft of computers with judges’ personal details from the Office of the Chief Justice. Initially Mahlobo’s lawyers sent Steenhuisen’s lawyers a letter demanding the tweet be deleted and an apology posted on the social media platform, according to the Sunday Times. Steenhuisen and the DA dismissed this. And so on Friday the four police officials investigating Mahlobo’s complaint, after apparently driving all the way from Gauteng, arrived at the chief whip’s parliamentary offices without warning or the legally required authorisation.

Friday was clearly not a good day for the DA chief whip. Earlier he officially complained about cameras directly above his parliamentary seat – there are a number of these cameras and not only above opposition benches – to Secretary to the National Assembly Masibulele Xaso. There was surprise about these cameras, and uncertainty exactly what these were filming as sittings of the House are captured by official cameras to broadcast proceedings. Steenhuisen said an “official investigation” into these cameras was now under way.

And it seems the bouncers – most are ex-SAPS officials hastily recruited in mid-2015 as chamber support officials to evict unruly MPs – may no longer be able to travel with MPs on oversight visits. Daily Maverick understands an undertaking to end such travel was made by House Chairperson for Committees, Cedric Frolick, after it emerged it was unknown by whom and how such authorisation was given in the first place. However, it remains unclear whether the bouncers will continue to sit in at committee meetings as they have done since at least the start of 2017.

Meanwhile, on Thursday morning, Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana, who continues to enjoy protection by bodyguards, was spotted making his way to the State Security Agency (SSA) offices in Parliament for, if the parliamentary grapevine is to be believed, a polygraph test as part of his security clearance vetting. Quips abounded that the secretary was having a second go after not having got his own house in order – even if he controversially introduced vetting for all staff in 2015.

Parliament did not respond to requests for comment, and so the issue of Mgidlana’s security clearance remains unclear. “From where we are sitting he does not have security clearance,” said National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) parliamentary branch chairperson Sthembiso Tembe, whose union opposed the vetting for staff Mgidlana introduced alongside grievances over the non-payment of performance bonuses and conditions of service in that year’s industrial action.

It could be that Thursday’s SSA date finally marked the start of Mgidlana’s security clearance. Or it might be part of a new vetting as security clearance must be renewed every five years. Mgidlana may well have carried over his security clearance to Parliament, where he was appointed in November 2014, from his previous job as deputy director-general in the Presidency seconded to the secretariat for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad).

State Security spokesperson Brian Dube said he could not comment on specifics, except to say SSA did an initial screening prior to senior appointments in the state, subject to full vetting. It was up to institutions to set time frames for the security clearance vetting.

Parliament has had a chequered track record on the vetting front despite insisting it was part of the job criteria. In September 2014 the Mail & Guardian reported that two of Parliament’s senior managers, deputy Secretary to Parliament (then acting as secretary) Baby Tyawa and Parliamentary Protection Service head (on suspension since September 2015) Zelda Holtzman, had not been vetted despite a year into the job.

Mgidlana’s top security clearance, according to City Press, is among the documents alongside travel and recruitment policies requested by Public Protector Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane for an investigation into abuse of power by the Secretary to Parliament. Laid in July 2016 by Nehawu, the complaint covers Mgidlana’s use of blue lights, his travels on which he is frequently accompanied by his wife, the hiring of police officials into the Parliamentary Protection Service, and the suspension of the service’s head and her deputy, together with a R71,000 ex gratia payment just months into the job, the same once-off payment that was meant to compensate staff.

Parliament did not meet the initial April 25 deadline for submission of these documents to the public protector but, according to City Press and Timeslive, is co-operating with the investigation.

There could be further complaints to the public protector following a Nehawu parliamentary branch meeting on Monday, Daily Maverick understands. That meeting is discussing the lack of progress in wage negotiations – and the still to be paid performance bonuses.

Parliament has never been immune to controversies, be it on the political front – remember the dilly-dallying in the arms deal controversy by then Speaker Fene Ginwala? – or within its administration, which in September 2012 saw then secretary Zingile Dingani dismissed for using R186,000 of Parliament’s funds, described as a salary advance, to build a security wall at his home.

But the last two years or so have seen an escalation of the tempo of controversies, sour labour relations and securitisation, be it bouncers, soldiers with automatic weapons during the 2017 State of the Nation Address or cameras trained on MPs in the House.

Parliament repeatedly finds itself in court, whether over its handling of the Nkandla saga – the Constitutional Court in March 2016 found the National Assembly had acted inconsistently with the Constitution, and unlawfully, in absolving President Jacob Zuma from any repayments for security upgrades – the December 2014 unlawful suspensions of EFF MPs, the secret ballot in a motion of no confidence or over the hiring of the bouncers.

Earlier this year it emerged that Mgidlana had not signed the statutorily required performance contract 46 weeks into the 2016/17 financial year, although this was corrected after the matter was raised in the joint standing committee on the financial management of Parliament.

And so, Gauteng police officers arriving unannounced on Friday, without the legally required permission to be on the parliamentary precinct as part of its investigations of an MP, comes within this particular context.

Institutions are eroded little by little. DM

The Original Photo: Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana (GCIS)

Gallery

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