South Africa

Parliamentary Notebook

Roiling pressure in the House and in the administration while clearing the decks before year’s end

Parliament on Tuesday issued a statement acknowledging it had not been immune to Covid-19 — 10 staff have now tested positive. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

In a high-pressure political week in Parliament where party politicking ruptured crassly into the open, much was also happening in the corridors of the parliamentary administration, largely away from the public eye. As the parliamentary year careers towards its close in just four weeks, it’s a case of outlast, outwit and stay the course at an unrelenting pace. The aim is to clear the decks — 2019 is an election year.

From Thursday, Modibedi Eric Phindela will no longer do double duty both in his permanent position as Secretary to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), while also acting as deputy Secretary to Parliament: Core Business, a position the advocate has held for the past three years with a not insignificant acting allowance. Effectively, losing the acting post from 15 November 2018 is a demotion.

There’s plenty of rumour on the parliamentary grapevine — City Press in July 2017 reported how Phindela’s two secretaries were also paid acting allowances for other jobs they were appointed to, but didn’t do the work for — but officially no reasons were given for this move.

The announcement came in what’s known as “info alert”, or the official communication channel to staff, which Daily Maverick has seen, by acting Secretary to Parliament Baby Tyawa:

I would like to take this opportunity to thank advocate ME Phindela for his assistance in the post for the past three years.”

Instead it’s Secretary of the National Assembly, Masibulele Xaso, who will now take on the additional responsibility as acting deputy Secretary to Parliament: Core Business. And his first duties include co-ordinating the processes related to an inquiry into the death of Lennox Garane, a senior manager in the international relations and protocol division, who on 14 September 2018 committed suicide in protest against an alleged 20 months of workplace bullying.

While the SAPS generals from Pretoria were much quicker off the bat to crack down on the precinct — they’ve had this in their sights for some time although the law and tradition puts Parliament’s presiding officers fully in control — Parliament took almost two months to finally act.

Well, strictly speaking, it’ll be the Public Service Commission (PSC) that will act over Garane’s suicide. According to an info alert from National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete and NCOP Chairperson Thandi Modise, “the PSC has been tasked to conduct an independent fact-finding investigation into the personnel practices and incidents that led to Mr Lennox Garane shooting himself on 14 September 2018.

All staff members of Parliament, who have direct information or evidence on this incident are please asked to contact the PSC investigating officer to provide all relevant information at their disposal to assist the investigation…” says the info alert, seen by Daily Maverick, calling on anyone wanting to do this to submit sworn statements.

All staff are requested to co-operate, support and assist the investigators by providing relevant information.”

In reality, there is very little left unsaid or unknown, given what Garane’s family publicly told a memorial service at Parliament in the presence of Tyawa and Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli. Nor is much left to the imagination in the details of the bullying that led to Garane’s action, outlined on the official funeral service pamphlet, widely shared on social media, headed, “It’s a Protest Suicide”.

On 25 September Parliament responded in an official statement to say it wished “to caution against the publishing of names of individuals in connection with untested allegations, as this borders on irresponsibility and may also be defamatory”. And it announced that alongside investigations by the SAPS and the State Security Agency, there would be a parliamentary inquiry.

Parliament will conduct an investigation into this incident to ensure that the institution is able to address all the factors that contributed to the late Lennox Garane taking his own life,” said Parliament’s spokesperson Moloto Mothapo.

The parliamentary inquiry will create an open platform for all affected people to present evidence. It will help Parliament address what happened and also assist Parliament to prevent any such occurrence in the future.”

After the presiding officers’ visit to the Garane family on 6 October 2018, there was another official statement about a parliamentary inquiry:

The presiding officers committed to institute an inquiry, which will be independent and impartial, to investigate the circumstances pertaining to the tragedy. The probe should, among others, assist both the family and Parliament in finding closure and ensuring that appropriate mechanisms are put in place to avert recurrence of such a tragedy,” said Mothapo in this statement.

The details of the inquiry will be announced once the process of appointing an independent investigator and the terms of reference are finalised,” Mothapo announced.

That has now happened with the info alert to staff on 8 November 2018, although no timeline for the inquiry by the Public Service Commission has emerged. Not setting a deadline or time frame is a time-honoured political tactic of kicking for touch in awkward, difficult and potentially embarrassing matters.

There is a long list of complaints Parliament’s joint ethics and members’ interests must still deal with, including two matters against EFF Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu, who is facing a conflict of interest charge over failing to disclose his brother’s role in the VBS Mutual Bank debacle, and for assaulting a journalist. It’s the complaint about throttling Netwerk24 photographer Adrian de Kock. It happened in March 2018, and is being heard later this week.

Regardless of a snail’s pace in certain instances, DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen has referred to the rules committee a ruling by House Chairperson Thoko Didiza last Tuesday that by snapping “VBS bank looters” in the direction of the EFF benches, Steenhuisen behaved in an unparliamentary manner. The reason for this move is that usually such commentary is acceptable if it refers not to an individual, but a political party or group of people.

Coincidentally, EFF leader Julius Malema’s retort of “you racist young man” to the DA Chief Whip was also ruled unparliamentary, as it referred to an individual MP. A day later, on Wednesday, the presiding officer upheld EFF comments of “racist DA” as these referred to a grouping, and did not cast aspersions on an individual. However, both Steenhuisen and Malema were ordered out of the House on Wednesday when after Didiza’s ruling each refused to withdraw their comments.

Tuesday’s DA-EFF set-to during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s final Q&A in the House for 2018 returned scenes of chaos to the House not seen in 2018. And at the end of his Q&A the president went off-script to respond to the chaos:

The project of building a non-racial society is a historical task. It is not a task we can move away from. South Africa characterises itself as a non-racial democracy,” he said.

There should never be a time and opportunity where we see each other as black, white… and insult each other. We are South Africans and it defines us.”

But the EFF race-baiting in the House is the clearest signal yet that the co-operation with the DA in key metros like Johannesburg and Pretoria is not only on the rocks — the EFF was central in the removal of Athol Trollip as DA mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay Metro earlier in 2018 — but is increasingly unlikely to set a basis for co-operation at provincial level after the 2019 elections.

And the ANC is sitting back and watching, as it did last Tuesday when verbal barbs turned to blows on the opposition benches in the House. Earlier during the presidential question time there were polite witty exchanges between Ramaphosa and Malema, as has happened on previous occasions. That may yet be another signal of the future.

If the behaviour in the House is in any way reflective of the Byzantine political machinations in the run-up to elections in 2019, questions arise about a possible toenadering between Fighter and Comrade — and even possible post-election dealings of mutual interest to the EFF and ANC. DM


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