The then deputy Speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, was acting as Speaker when a document with the Arms Deal corruption claims slid under her door.
“That document had no signature, had no author, but it contained scary things. I had to apply my mind for hours and I took a decision. Parliament is very busy… and I just did not act on it,” Mbete told Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo on Tuesday.
“I just did not act on it. If another opportunity like that happened I would still decide that.”
It’s on public record that then Pan-Africanist Congress MP Patricia de Lille spoke under parliamentary privilege on the Arms Deal corruption memo in the House in September 1999.
This set in motion complicated and complex consequences, including the fraud conviction and jailing in 2006 of then-ANC chief whip Tony Yengeni for failing to declare a discount on a luxury car from one of the Arms Deal bidders, and the jailing of Schabir Shaik in 2005 for soliciting a bribe for the then deputy president, Jacob Zuma.
In 2018 Zuma was in the dock on fraud, corruption and money laundering charges related to the Arms Deal that had been controversially withdrawn on the eve of the 2009 election that brought the then ANC president to the Union Buildings.
Many argue that the 1999 Arms Deal — officially the Strategic Defence Procurement Package — prepped the ground for State Capture.
On Tuesday, it seemed from Mbete’s testimony she had again not acted on anonymous corruption claims during her second term as Speaker between 2014 and May 2019. This time the claims were in relation to State Capture.
Such claims were regarded as “rumours” or “noise” in 2016, she said.
“In 2016 suddenly we were hearing noises and we were seeing and reading reports about disturbing things… about which we were hearing rumours, nothing concrete,” said Mbete.
“You don’t just take something because someone has said it and plunge in.”
Previous ANC testimony also indicated how the governing party dismissed the growing influence of the Guptas on Zuma and his administration as unsubstantiated, telling those who raised this to lay charges.
As far back as 2011, the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) heard from Fikile Mbalula how the Guptas told him he’d be in Cabinet, before he was appointed as sports minister. In 2013 the landing of Gupta wedding guests at the Waterkloof Air Force Base was public knowledge. And in March 2016 then deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas made a public statement about how the Guptas offered him the finance minister’s post and a multimillion-rand bribe.
Commission evidence leader advocate Alec Freund SC asked Mbete why Parliament had not acted earlier than the June 2017 directive by House Chairman for Committees Cedric Frolick to four parliamentary committees to probe the #GuptaLeaks, a trove of thousands of leaked emails.
“Because there’s logic in how an institution like Parliament does its very complex job. It would not go clutching at information that arrives,” Mbete replied.
Reiterating her earlier testimony about the Arms Deal corruption claims, she said it was not possible to act without a name to the claims as there was a process, a programme, and structures.
But action did happen, said Mbete, segueing into a defence of parliamentary oversight.
“It is simply untrue that the fifth Parliament [2014-2019] sat through massive amounts of corruption and did totally nothing. It’s not true. Yes, I dare say it was inadequate, because the resources are not adequate.”
Mbete is a veteran of Parliament. A year after her arrival she became deputy Speaker in 1996 and served two terms to 2004 when she became Speaker.
At the 2007 Polokwane conference, Mbete was elected as ANC national chairperson.
In September 2008, when then-president Thabo Mbeki resigned after his recall by the ANC, Mbete became deputy president under Kgalema Motlanthe.
After the 2009 elections, the grapevine was abuzz with claims that Mbete had declined being sworn in as MP because she’d been denied continuing as deputy president. Mbete was in the House, but continued sitting when her name was called to take the MP’s oath of office. The ANC later issued a statement saying Mbete would stay on at Luthuli House as the governing party’s national chairperson.
And that’s what happened: at the ANC’s 2012 Mangaung conference Mbete was re-elected as national chairperson.
After the 2014 elections, the grapevine suggests Zuma did not give Mbete an option — and she returned to Parliament, again, as the Speaker of the National Assembly. It was a rough start, with a motion of no confidence from the opposition because of her dual role as ANC national chairperson and Speaker. The ANC used its numbers in the House to amend the motion into one of confidence that saw most opposition parties walk out before that vote in September 2014.
Accusations of bias would follow Mbete throughout her term, alongside claims she was protecting Zuma during the Q&As in the House.
“The president has answered. You may not like the answer, but an answer has been given”, or words to that effect, became standard.
This was also raised at the State Capture Commission.
Mbete dismissed questions of a conflict of interest between her ANC and parliamentary roles, saying this was how South Africa’s party political system worked.
“I used to always say in Parliament, if you were to put to me a president of the country called FW de Klerk, I would play my role as Speaker in relation to that president the very same way as I would to a president from my party [the ANC].”
She insisted the Speaker had no role in determining the quality of ministers and presidential answers in the House.
“You cannot determine the choice of words [by a minister],” Mbete told Zondo, who then asked whether the Speaker did not have a role to play when ministers manifestly avoided answering.
“The Speaker must not be thrust in that space. It’s unfair to make the presiding officer decide whether a question is answered,” Mbete insisted.
When asked why Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI) was allowed to not publish its statutorily required annual report of its oversight, Mbete said she could not say much, but could confirm this happened.
“It’s an area that tends to work behind the scenes and therefore we get it deeply embedded to accept you don’t go out of your way probing, because it may be misunderstood.”
Asked why the JSCI had allowed the post of intelligence inspector-general to be vacant for two years, Mbete said, “With a lot of these situations we are dealing with it’s not a case of being allowed to happen. Things just don’t happen.”
A little like not acting on the corruption claims about the 1999 multibillion-rand Arms Deal that’s seen in many circles as the first iteration of State Capture. DM
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