MPs close committee meeting, citing market sensitivity, to shield Post Office from divulging turnaround plans
As a recipient of taxpayer-funded bailouts, the South African Post Office turnaround plan to get out of its financial mess should be there for all to see. Not so, decided the parliamentary communications committee.
The MPs’ decision to close Tuesday’s session with the South African Post Office (SAPO) came at the request of Communications Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni because of so-called market and commercially sensitive information.
Or, according to the reason outlined in the legal opinion obtained by the communications committee:
“(T)he fact that competitors in the postal service sector have already encroached on the SAPO business, it is imperative that information shared to the Committee remains confidential in order to protect the service delivery objectives of SAPO in line with legislation.”
Now, commercially and market-sensitive matters are not among Parliament’s rules on reasons to close a committee meeting.
According to Section 59 of the Constitution, “(t)he National Assembly may not exclude the public, including the media, from a sitting of a committee unless it is reasonable and justifiable to do so in an open and democratic society”.
Parliamentary Rule 184 sets out three reasonable and justifiable grounds for considering a meeting’s closure — matters of “a private nature that is prejudicial to a particular person”, matters of parliamentary privilege and matters that are confidential in terms of legislation.
And it emphasises, again, how “the nature of which is such that its confidential treatment is reasonable in an open and democratic society”.
MPs of the communications committee were told commercially and market-sensitive information is not a reason to close a committee.
“In our view, the reason for closing the meeting as set out in the brief does not justify closing the meeting in terms of NA (National Assembly) Rule 184,” according to the legal opinion.
“The potential information does not appear to be of a private nature that is prejudicial to a particular person; protected under parliamentary privilege; or, for any other reason privileged in terms of the law, or confidential in terms of legislation.”
Then came the point where the constitutional spirit of transparency and accountability collided with legalities and politics.
Some areas of the SAPO presentation may fall under Rule 184, and may lead the chairperson to consider closing the meeting at that point, according to the legal opinion.
“20. Therefore, Chairperson may decide whether to close the meeting in terms of subrule (2)(b) of NA rule 184; namely, the Chairperson to close the meeting for a decision by the Committee whether the matter, or part therefore, should be considered in closed session. It as [sic] this point that the details of the presentation can be weighed against NA Rule 184.”
Of course, the politicians took that and decided to close the entire Post Office session, as Ntshavheni and her department had requested.
Coincidentally, item 20 was quoted in the committee’s official media statement — sans the last sentence that indicates a nuanced approach that balances presentation details against the need to close the meeting.
The Post Office turnaround strategy was welcomed, according to this statement: Media Statement: Communication Committee Welcomes SAPO’s Presentation on Turnaround Strategy — Parliament of South Africa.
The Parliamentary Press Gallery Association, which represents a corps of senior journalists working at Parliament, has formally complained about the closure of the committee meeting on SAPO. It is understood that closing meetings over market sensitivities is deemed unacceptable, and this will be raised at the next meeting of chairpersons.
On Tuesday, after reopening the meeting, communications committee chairperson Boyce Maneli maintained it had been justified to close the meeting due to “sensitive commercial information”, saying it had been done before on the SABC’s turnaround strategy.
It is unclear exactly what meeting is referred to here. In 2019 the public broadcaster’s turnaround strategy was discussed in open committee; the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) that year netted the SABC a R3.4-billion bailout.
Perhaps a repeat is loading — and the 2022 MTBPS will net the Post Office billions of rands.
That more funding was requested emerged from Maneli’s comments — but with no quantum of how much South Africa’s taxpayers will have to cough up.
R8-billion over three years was the number that emerged on 16 November 2021 when the Post Office briefed Parliament’s public spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), according to transcripts by the Parliamentary Monitoring Group.
The Post Office has until the end of March 2022 to table its long overdue 2020/21 annual report. Meanwhile, the Post Office’s Vision 2030 corporate plan stands unedited, never mind any new turnaround strategy.
According to this document covering the period to 2023/24, the Post Office would “transform into a modern organisation” that would allow customers to “transact via a multi-channel platform, inclusive of an e-Commerce digital mall”, receive and process payments “via a multi-method payment and financial gateway”, provide “convenient and better access” to government services and not only store goods in “a national warehousing network”, but also “send and receive physical items via a reliable and secure national distribution network”.
So not only is the Auditor-General’s dim view of the Post Office’s auditing standards in the public domain, but also much of its sorry financial state — and corporate plans to change.
Questions must arise over the communications committee citing commercial and/or market sensitivities to close its briefing with the Post Office — and not distributing the presentation to MPs beforehand, as is usual practice.
It seems part of a broader move to close, or at least narrow, public spaces in the national legislature, which constitutionally must operate in the open and in public.
On Wednesday, ANC Deputy Chief Whip Doris Dlakude was sent to Scopa to nix oversight of the State Security Agency (SSA), triggered by testimony before the State Capture commission.
Yes, Scopa must do its work in line with its scope and mandate, according to Dlakude, but the SSA fell under the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI) that is doing its work, although it’s not known because it sits behind closed doors, unlike Scopa that sits in public. But for Scopa to do oversight of SSA finances, this would undermine the JSCI.
Elsewhere, the sub judice rule — defunct following several court rulings — was used to halt scrutiny of then health minister Zweli Mkhize’s role in the Digital Vibes corruption saga.
In November 2021, sub judice was invoked in the programming committee to stop discussions on the Public Protector and Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe’s parliamentary impeachment proceedings.
Rather than having public discussions in the programming committee that decides on parliamentary business, National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula increasingly seems to refer matters to the Chief Whips’ Forum, a political consultative structure that sits behind closed doors. The trend seems to be for that forum’s recommendations to be adopted in the programming committee.
Meanwhile, no one seems to want the job of Secretary to Parliament. Efforts to make a permanent appointment by 1 April 2022 to the post that’s been held in an acting capacity since mid-2017 have fallen flat, it emerged in Thursday’s programming committee.
Anyone interested in being the next Secretary to Parliament should look out for the position to be re-advertised! DM