South Africa, Politics

Reporter’s Parliamentary Notebook: Chickens, heists and national key points in the house

By Marianne Merten 8 June 2017

Parliament got its chicken from Canada, the EFF pointed out in its questioning of government’s handling of the impact of chicken imports on local producers. “I would like Parliament to procure local chicken. If they don’t do that let’s engage Parliament,” replied Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davis during Wednesday’s economic Q&A in the House. While often the focus on Parliament is on big days, like President Jacob Zuma’s appearances, on any given day the most curious bits of information emerge in the House, and before committees that often also are treated to some bizarre behaviour by officials. By MARIANNE MERTEN

It was newly-appointed interim acting national police commissioner Lieutenant-General Lesetja Mothiba’s first appearance in the hot seat at Wednesday’s meeting of the police committee. Surrounded by top SAPS managers his main role, as had been the case with his predecessors, was directing who should respond to what.

And so MPs learnt the SAPS categorises its police stations according to the rank of the officer in charge. With Soshanguve, Pretoria, having been upgraded to a “brigadier station”, up from a “colonel station”, more policing resources could now be expected for that township. However, while Gauteng police are thinking about opening a satellite police station in Soshanguve South, as per a community petition, no site has yet been identified. In any case, added Gauteng police commissioner Deliwe de Lange, “it would be very difficult for us to have 24/7 service (at a satellite police station)”.

According to the SAPS presentation, a suspended police member was reinstated because the complainant in a police brutality, bribery and corruption case at Edenvale station did not testify in court. “The departmental investigation was finalised as ‘withdrawn’ on 29 June 2016 as the complainant relocated to the United Kingdom. The complainant was contacted in England, but he refused to testify,” according to the document.

Correctional Services had a rough time before Parliament’s watchdog on public spending, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa). Officials were told to return next Wednesday at 6pm with proper responses on irregular expenditure, questionable tenders and conflicts of interests of its staff.

Correctional Services Commissioner Zacharia Modise frequently battled to fully answer MPs’ questions. At one stage he argued it had been unclear what the committee wanted to be briefed on until Monday. The committee did not take kindly to this; it wasn’t the first time Modise appeared before Scopa.

Language was a challenge, Modise said in his closing remarks. “We think like officials. We sometimes fail to understand the thinking of politicians,” he said, adding better communications that was understood all round would mean “information is provided as MPs expect us to do”.

As has become parliamentary protocol the minister in attendance with departmental officials, was given the opportunity to close the meeting. But this time it was Correctional Services Deputy Minister Thabang Makwetla who chose only to say it was crucial that the department be in a better space after its next meeting with MPs.

Police Minister Fikile Mbalula told MPs of his “sleepless nights”, not only about a civilian secretariat that “is not pulling its weight” as a constitutionally-established entity, but also about security at national key points, like SAA and OR Tambo International Airport. “If you had to know what is happening there, you’d collapse,” he told MPs, adding that within the current geo-political context if things were left as is at OR International Airport, “this country (South Africa) will be embarrassed”.

In March OR Tambo International Airport hit the headlines after a heist, in which suspects breached several lines of security to get away with R20.7-million, although eight people were subsequently arrested.

But information on robberies at that airport and those at Lanseria, Bloemfontein, Durban and Cape Town over the past five years and since April 1 this year was “not readily available” from the SAPS’s investigation case docket management system (ICDMS). This emerged in a police ministry parliamentary reply to a DA question just hours after the police committee meeting.

Instead a specific request must be made to the SAPS technology management services division “to extract the information from the ICDMS via an ‘ad hoc’ request”. This took seven working days. “The information will be provided as soon as it is received by the division: detective service,” said the police ministry’s parliamentary reply.

Like parliamentary questions, MPs’ annual declarations of their financial interests, gifts, benefits and sponsorships are part of the business of the national legislature. In the wake of #GuptaLeaks, these declarations have now become a prickly issue for Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo. DA MP and national spokesperson Phumzile Van Damme has reported the minister to Parliament’s ethics committee for failing to declare her 2015 trip to Dubai, which the email leaks showed were paid by Sahara Computers, a Gupta-linked company.

The parliamentarians code of conduct on a guilty verdict imposes a maximum penalty of loss of one months’ salary, but may also include a written reprimand, or one given in the House, and the suspension of parliamentary privileges of up to 15 days.

Away from the existing 37-odd oversight committees, often described as the engine room of Parliament, steps are underway to establish a new ad hoc committee – this one on party political funding to inquire by November 30 into a potential new public funding model and the regulation of private donations. Political parties are in the process of selecting the MPs to represent them on this committee after the National Assembly on Wednesday adopted the resolution to bring it into being.

Nipped in the bud, however, were DA MP and finance spokesperson David Maynier’s 405 proposals to amend the Appropriations Bill, the legislation underpinning the Budget.

Those 405 amendments would have shifted a total of R10.8 billion from underperforming departments elsewhere, including another R1.5-billion for the Expanded Public Works Programme to create additional jobs, R688-million for a specialised anti-drug police unit, and R3.5-billion in financial assistance to 63, 331 more poor students.

But on the eve of a marathon session to pass all budget votes, following the past three weeks’ debates, Maynier on Wednesday was told there was no time to consider his suggestions in a jam-packed parliamentary programme, given that, for example, public hearings would be required on the proposals.

Maynier disagreed. “The truth is the ANC MPs have no appetite to amend (the Budget) and consider our proposals,” he told Daily Maverick. “The ANC rejected the DA proposals to helps SA.”

That off the table, it’s all go for Thursday’s estimated eight-hour session in the National Assembly to pass 40 budget votes in the R1.4-trillion Budget. The EFF has rejected all but the allocations for the Office of the Chief Justice and Statistics South Africa. Other political parties have expressed their reservations on a plethora of other votes. And the DA is expected to call for declarations, when MPs can make statements for or against a particular budget vote, and a vote on many, if not most departmental budgets.

Patience will be tested on Thursday. DM

Photo: Security forces take up positions on the tarmac as members of the U.S. national soccer team arrive at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo airport, May 31, 2010. REUTERS/David Gray

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