DAYS OF ZONDO
Speaker Thandi Modise does damage control — apologises for Parliament seeming to be ‘sleepist’ and pleads for more resources
National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise told the Zondo Commission of Parliament’s duty, as the people’s representative, to question and probe — and how it hasn’t always managed to do that. But she did not quite manage to sidestep the quicksand of party politics in Parliament.
“It is regrettable that the impression is Parliament only woke up when things were really bad. For that we must apologise to the South African people.”
With that, National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise shouldered responsibility for what had emerged as at best lukewarm parliamentary oversight, according to testimony before the State Capture Commission.
Commission chairperson Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo was told of a lack of political will to deal with malfeasance, how a divided governing ANC kicked for touch probing #GuptaLeak claims and how when corruption was looked at it got the kid gloves treatment (Read more here and here and here.)
Last Thursday, ANC National Chairperson Gwede Mantashe said parliamentarians owed their allegiance to the political party for which voters had cast their ballots.
On Monday Modise moved on to damage-control Parliament’s reputation regarding its constitutional responsibility for oversight and holding the executive to account. It was an important moment.
“It is important for us as Parliament to say it is not just about prestige. It is about service. It is not just about holding the executive to account. It is also to hear on behalf of the people and to speak on behalf of the people,” said Modise.
“It’s important to ensure nothing that is in the interest of the people is derailed. No committee has an excuse for not asking pointed questions… for not summoning people.”
Committees can call anyone, or any document, interrogate any matter at any time — and determine their own ways of doing so — as part of the ordinary parliamentary rules that have been there from the get-go of the democratic Parliament.
Lawmakers have always had the powers and the right “to pointedly put the executive on the spot”, not only in committees, but also in the House.
And while there are cracks — the track and trace system to follow up on ministerial statements and pledges is still not in place — tools exist to moderate flailing about, as the 2009 oversight and accountability model is yet to be fully implemented.
“It is not only about having a tracking device, but it is also about having members of Parliament experienced enough to push their point in committee and on the floor of the House,” said Modise.
And this included what’s happening now, writing to ministers to follow up on their commitments — and, ultimately, drafting a report card to the president on his ministers.
But sometimes when things fall through the cracks it is because of a lack of resources, according to Modise, who again appealed for the resources to fully capacitate parliamentarians.
Retaining institutional memory was another appeal from the speaker. The parliamentary benches generally, but in particular of the ANC, were decimated after the May 2019 elections as a majority of experienced MPs did not return.
That was the easy bit. Her testimony fell apart somewhat over the role of study groups in Parliament where ministers of the governing party and often also senior officials, or (non)deployed cadres, brief ANC MPs.
Modise deflected commission evidence leader Alec Freund’s point that evidence suggested that ANC MPs went into committee meetings having decided on what position to take during their study group meeting.
There was “nothing wrong” with inviting ministers and others to a study group as this was distinct from a committee doing its oversight.
“If the intention is to get information and advice, there’s nothing wrong,” said Modise, adding that any other party represented in Parliament in their study groups set up for research and learning could do the same.
That’s disingenuous, as only the ANC has study groups. That opposition parties have not invited ministers and officials to brief them in their party structures, as Modise has suggested, is a failure of those opposition parties.
And perhaps it’s time to change that, with invitations to ministers and others to also brief the opposition in their party political structures. It would be an important test for Parliament — and executive accountability across the party political fault lines.
But reputational damage control also fell somewhat apart over Parliament not having a committee on the Presidency, and things falling through the cracks because of that, particularly as Freund pointed out that many of the State Capture claims revolved around the former president.
That line of questioning brought out the ANC tradition of protecting its president by all means. It also brought out the governing party’s nervousness about opposition politicking — such as calling the president to appear before a Presidency committee.
“Most of the work the president does is already there in committees. And the president is not a member of the House. He is this coordinator that must have space to coordinate all three spheres of state,” was how Modise deflected the need for a committee on the Presidency.
“We wanted to reaffirm our commitment to the republic, but also to say to you [that] as Parliament, we will do everything in our power to follow up not only on corruption, but all issues. We do support this commission.”
That was the line taken later on by Mantashe, who returned to the State Capture Commission to continue his testimony for the ANC.
“The president has no portfolio; he is overseeing ministers,” said Mantashe. “What we are conscious of is the portfolio committee is an oversight structure. Sometimes there are serious tensions.”
Zondo pushed the point that there may still be a need for parliamentarians to be able to pointedly ask questions directly to the Presidency.
Mantashe backed down, saying he would “not go to war” about such a committee, but maintained his course against “an assumption we are not having the best president” and how the push for a Presidency oversight committee may “be dictated to by people outside. That’s a dangerous assumption for society.”
Mantashe has testified for the ANC, even though, strictly speaking, the governing party’s submissions to the commission were made by ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule. Given the current contestation around corruption claims and pressure to step aside, it may well have been argued that Magashule was not the best possible representative.
It is understood similar considerations could have been at play in deciding against testimony by former speaker Baleka Mbete, during whose watch in the national legislature many of the State Capture claims played out. That effectively left Modise, who during those years chaired the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), in the often tricky position of being asked about National Assembly matters she would not have knowledge of.
ANC submissions to the commission included a proposal for a so-called joint oversight and government assurance committee to deal with the broader transversal and cross-cutting issues.
It wasn’t a committee for the president, or the coordinator-in-chief as both Modise and Mantashe described it, but seemed more crafted towards dovetailing the continued efforts to reshape the executive structures. Or, as Mantashe put it, to “ destroy the silos and integrate them into a government machinery”.
Modise as speaker, and NCOP chairperson Amos Masondo made no references to such a proposal, signalling again a disjunct of where decisions about Parliament are actually taken, and the persisting party political quicksand.
But Modise held the line — and remained adamant that Parliament would do its job.
“We wanted to reaffirm our commitment to the republic, but also to say to you [that] as Parliament, we will do everything in our power to follow up not only on corruption, but all issues. We do support this commission.” DM
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