South Africa

South Africa

Parliament: Zen and the art of presidential maintenance – now hearing no evil

Parliament: Zen and the art of presidential maintenance – now hearing no evil

President Jacob Zuma on Thursday developed a curious case of repeat deafness to opposition questions on aspects of his finances, but was not shy to mock. Allegations levelled against him in these times of State Capture, in the president’s view, were all about undermining the ANC – “the biggest party that is in government” and the one that “has grown the economy from billion level to trillion level”. Tempers roiled. Zuma insisted: as president he was entitled to having the state pay his legal costs, and he had not received any payments from individuals or companies “other than those disclosed or reported to the necessary authorities”. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

In the perfect world according to President Jacob Zuma, question time in the National Assembly would start with a standing ovation when taking the podium, rapt silence as answers to questions submitted 16 calendar day earlier are read out, and follow-up questions that solicit expounding of the glorious track of the ANC government. Afterwards, just for good measure, another standing ovation for a job well done.

Of course, Thursday’s presidential question time did not turn out like that. Again, it unravelled even in the absence of the EFF, which the governing party blames for being the disruptors-in-chief.

Instead, in a bizarre twist, the governing ANC’s factions, at boiling point ahead of its December elective national conference, were publicly exposed. Last month a push by pro-Zuma ANC MPs in caucus to shut down the parliamentary Eskom State Capture inquiry, and others, was defeated – and the inquiry has now started. But on Thursday an ANC backbencher asked Zuma about the need for parliamentary inquiries, given the presidential undertaking to establish a commission.

The fact that Parliament takes a process, I don’t know what it means,” replied Zuma, adding with reference to the commission he would establish: “I don’t know which one would be more legitimate.”

I think it is always important to remember the separation of powers, particularly if the matter is handled by another arm of state. If Parliament thought it was the best thing to do, that’s Parliament.”

But a commission of inquiry he would establish and “what was in the hands of the public protector will no longer be there”, said Zuma. “If you (Parliament) want to establish another, that’s nothing with me.”

Subtext? You can do whatever you like, I will have the last say.

His earlier responses on the same commission effectively gainsaid the repeated public presidency statements that such a probe would be established as soon as possible. The ANC has clutched to this carrot repeatedly and publicly – even in the wake of the Nkandla saga’s presidential (non)apology for “frustration and confusion” arising from “a different approach and different legal adviceafter three years of bruising public outcry, be it in taverns or among the chattering classes.

But on Thursday Zuma said no, lawyers had advised him he could not establish that commission because of his court review of the public protector’s remedial action:

If the matter is in court, I couldn’t establish the commission of the same thing… You want me to break the law? While the matter is in court, I establish a parallel commission? I would not do so,” he told Cope MP Deidre Carter.

After a judgment, he would establish this commission of inquiry:

We prove the liars and the truths. It is coming, my dear, don’t worry. It is coming,” Zuma said, adding after a sweetheart question regarding pre-1994 corruption: “Those who are calling for it (a commission of inquiry) are going to regret. It is going to investigate corruption as long as citizens say this is what we want to be investigated”.

Finish and klaar.

IFP MP Liezl van der Merwe asked whether as chairperson of the inter-ministerial committee on social grants the president would “for once take personal responsibility” for the deadlock between the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) and the Post Office. She got a meandering response prefaced with, “Just to help those who need information” on poverty.

Poverty is a direct baby of apartheid, particularly to the majority,” said Zuma. “Don’t present the problem of poverty as a problem of this government. This government is solving the problem.”

Apparently Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba is meeting both sides to solve the problem. And Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini was solving the problem, Zuma said in response to DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s question as to why Dlamini is still in the Cabinet:

The Constitutional Court gave an order to Minister Bathabile. If you remove her, who is going to implement that order? Who? She has to deliver the order of the Constitutional Court. What do I tell the Constitutional Court?”

Less given to verbal sparring was Zuma on Maimane’s question about his income, a direct reference to the Sunday Times excerpt of Jacques Pauw’s book The President’s Keepers that outlined how a Durban-based South African Revenue Services (SARS) official in early 2010 noted a R1-million a month security company salary paid to JG Zuma, whose tax records and employment history were blocked on the system.

I did not receive any payment from private individuals or companies during my tenure as president … other than those disclosed or reported to the necessary authorities,” Zuma said. And that was it. And he stayed on message.

But it might not be the end of the matter. It is understood Maimane will travel to the Union Buildings on Monday to access the presidential declaration of financial interests that must be made annually under the Executive Ethics Act.

The levels of frustration had been rising on the opposition benches. While there was a response on the appointment of a new national police commissioner, there were no details beyond reference to processes. With regards to the free higher education report, it was little more than “I am working on it… I briefed Cabinet…” and there would be an announcement soon.

It all eventually unravelled over the question on the cost of Zuma’s years-long legal action in the so-called Spy Tapes case, related to the dropping of 783 criminal charges on the eve of the 2009 election that saw Zuma elected as South Africa’s president.

That litigation was brought by a political party – Zuma could not, or would not, say “DA” – and “the president has defended it as he is entitled to at state expense”, according to law. “This benefit is extended to all who are employed in the service of the state.”

Maimane objected that the question was not answered.

I am answering the question,” retorted Zuma. “(His statement) gives the impression that I have been running to courts and giving lots of money. I have been defending what the political (sic) has done in taking me to court.”

A barrage of points of order from both sides of the House; raised tempers. Amid assertions of “The president is going to jail” from one side of the House and “You are racist, voetsek” and “You burn the South African flag, you are racist”, the DA walked out.

Last time around, at the end of August, it was the EFF that walked out when it became clear there would be no answers from “uBaba kaDuduzane”, as the EFF calls Zuma. Heated exchanges had unfolded over why, if Zuma denies claims that he instructed civil servants to assist his son Duduzane, did he not take action against those officials saying so.

The EFF’s appearance at a presidential question session marked an interruption in the boycott of Zuma in the House as the party had given up on accountability from a president viewed as “a constitutional delinquent”. On Thursday EFF leader Julius Malema, EFF Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu and others rather led a Free Palestine picket at the Israeli embassy in Tshwane on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration which paved the way for the foundation of Israel.

In many ways the EFF has resolved the quandary of the show of constitutional oversight without qualitative substance. The DA has not, and remains caught between earnestly seeking accountability in line with Parliament’s constitutional oversight mandate, but coming up against a Teflon president, who has defeated internal party debates on stepping down, twice.

The ANC did what it always does: protect the president. It happened also in August’s motion of no confidence where MPs were read the riot act to toe the party line as the ANC would not be told by outsiders how to run its business. The vote was defeated 198 votes against, 177 for and nine abstentions, a result that showed at least 35 ANC MPs either abstained or voted for the motion.

Shortly after the whole performance, the ANC issued a statement on the DA walk-out, describing it as “theatrical hijinks tailored for the television cameras”, while commending ANC MPs for “their resoluteness and commitment” to the work at Parliament. It lauded Zuma for “his continuing and undeterred commitment to account to the people of South Africa” by appearing in Parliament to answer questions.

But the question remains: when is an answer an answer and when is it just ticking the box? DM

Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma attends the China-South Africa Economy Forum at a hotel in Beijing, China, 05 December 2014. EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL

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