Parliamentary Notebook

When the art of letter writing is a weapon of politicking

By Marianne Merten 11 June 2018

EFF's Floyd Shivambu (supplied); ANC's Yunus Carrim (YouTube)

Letters. They don’t often come before parliamentary committees, unless it’s an official saying why he or she was unavailable to keep a date with MPs. But it’s been that kind of a week in which various letters, alongside the usual statements, put an interesting twist on what unfolded publicly. And then there were others that followed in a flurry as politicians seem to rediscover the art of letter writing – for politicking.

One letter outstanding since May was the response by Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene to a letter that EFF Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu on Thursday said was written three weeks back regarding “allegations of corruption” and other matters related to National Treasury. Yunus Carrim, the chairperson of the Standing Committee on Finance Committee, promised Shivambu he’d fire off another letter, this time an official committee letter, to Nene, with a deadline, to respond.

Whether any ministerial response will be made public remains to be seen. But it was one of several missives that emerged in Thursday’s bruising finance committee meeting as it traversed the fallout of Tuesday’s comment by Shivambu that National Treasury Deputy Director Ismail Momoniat “is undermining African leadership” in the African-led treasury. This came as the National Treasury head for tax and financial sector policy attended the finance committee set to discuss financial services sector transformation. In an unusual move National Treasury confirmed Momoniat was the right person at the right place at the right time.

The next day, Wednesday, Shivambu wrote a letter to Carrim to “demand” the committee chairperson “respond truthfully” as to whether he had any relationship with Momoniat beyond that of a committee chairperson, and whether the National Treasury deputy director-general had paid for Carrim to go to the World Bank and/or International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Describing this as an “absurd letter” with a subtext of “I’m in some sort of pally-pally, subordination-of-the parliamentary-committee sell-out relationship”, or part of “a South African Indian Broederbond”, Carrim nevertheless answered. No, there’s no personal relationship, nor had he ever travelled with Momoniat. As a co-opted member of the board of the Parliamentary Network of the World Bank and IMF board, an oversight body, all and any trips aboard had been approved by Parliament’s authorities, and were paid for by the network.

Both letters from Shivambu and Carrim were made public on Thursday; after the bruising exchange in the finance committee Shivambu demanded a retraction and apology from Carrim. It was a muddled session where what the committee actually said in a statement merged with what may have emerged in media reports and radio interviews, or on social media.

Shivambu ultimately claimed victory as the committee agreed to amend its initial statement by inserting “alleged” at the appropriate place – as in: “The committee further notes that Mr Shivambu alleged that Mr Momoniat is undermining African leadership” – and adding: “Neither the committee statement nor the chairperson said that Mr Shivambu did not want Mr Momoniat to speak at the meeting because he is of Indian origin.”

That was the result only after some heated exchanges. Shivambu called Carrim “crazy”, and Carrim offered to resign. When DA MP David Maynier suggested the EFF chief whip should take up the issues over what was said where with the relevant structures in Parliament, Shivambu’s response was quick: “This racist of Maynier, whatever his name is, has no moral authority to speak on this issue.” And ANC MP Thandi Tobias concurred.

It remains to be seen whether there now will be another letter by Maynier’s chief whip, John Steenhuisen, to take this up in yet another letter, like the one the DA chief whip fired off to National Council of Provinces (NCOP) Chairperson Thandi Modise after the so-called bouncers evicted DA NCOP leader, Cathlene Labuschagne, during Thursday’s land reform budget debate.

There were more letters. That much became clear during SAA’s presentation to MPs on its R5.7-billion losses, above anticipation, for the 2017/18 financial year, although it was not quite so clear whether the letter came from the finance committee or its ANC study group component.

Deputy Finance Minister Mondli Gungubele thanked MPs for the “granular detail” of what should be spoken of in an open meeting. On at least two occasions SAA CEO Vuyani Jarana delicately referred to “another framework” by which information could be made available to the committee.

In May controversy erupted amid confusion over whether to close the meeting with Team SAA to discuss market sensitive issues related to the briefing on its quarterly report. Closing parliamentary meetings is highly unusual – and market sensitivity is an unprecedented reason even if it also was mooted for the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) which asset manages some R2-trillion of government pensions and social savings.

And so on Thursday everyone was on their best behaviour to avoid controversy, while ticking the oversight/accountability boxes. It came unstuck over a request for SAA executives’ salaries.

Revealing what people are paid at SAA is a market sensitive thing,” said SAA board chairperson JB Magwaza: “We can’t willy-nilly divulge that in public”.

However, executive remuneration is legally required information in every annual report, including that of SAA, which are public documents. Just a day later the Mail & Guardian reported how much SAA executives earn – from Jarana’s R6.7-million a year to the R2.5-million annual salary for acting risk and compliance head Robert Newsome.

MPs of the finance committee gave the PIC the benefit of the doubt with regards to investment decisions despite public scrutiny over several controversial ones. Shivambu, with the support of Tobias, had argued there were vested interests seeking to undermine a black African-led institution by requiring disclosure unlike private asset managers.

But United Democratic Movement (UDM) leader Bantu Holomisa was not similarly inclined. And on Sunday he released the letter, the second since 31 May, written to President Cyril Ramaphosa on concerns over PIC investment decisions and their pliancy to the politically connected.

The central concern? A facilitation fee – these also emerged in various deals by Eskom and Transnet that came under scrutiny in the parliamentary State Capture inquiry – for ensuring PIC involvement in a deal involving ANC officials like former treasurer Zweli Mkhize, now co-operative governance minister, and ANC-linked companies like Zonkizizwe Investments in a deal with AfricOil, subject to a legal letter of demand for payment.

Reported also by the Sunday Times, Holomisa, in his letter to Ramaphosa dated 8 June, copied to Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo who heads the State Capture commission of inquiry, requested a reply with substance to this letter and his initial one of 31 May.

Meanwhile, Mkhize issued a statement denying any involvement.

I categorically deny having facilitated any PIC loan for AfricOil. In my tenure as the ANC treasurer-general I met with various companies who would brief me on their operations, strategies or plans. This in no way meant that my intervention was required. At no stage did I enter into an agreement to facilitate loans for a fee.”

There may yet be a lawyer’s letter on its way in this season of writing letters. DM

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