Ramaphosa gets free pass on Phala Phala forex farm theft as Parliament ‘enters the twilight zone’
Having said he was ready to account — just not quite yet in Parliament — for the Phala Phala farm forex theft, President Cyril Ramaphosa thought he was done. However, the opposition insisted on a proper answer and the Speaker ultimately called time on an unfinished Q&A session.
When National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula cited the precedent of a previous incomplete question and answer session, it was with reference to the August 2014 “Pay back the money” Q&A with then president Jacob Zuma.
That’s a similarity unlikely to sit easily with President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has styled his administration as one eradicating corruption and State Capture and upholding the rule of law and constitutional values.
But the February 2020 theft of US dollars stuffed into sofa cushions on his private Limpopo farm to which South Africa was alerted when ex-spy boss and Zuma ally Arthur Fraser reported it to the police in June, has cast a long shadow.
Ramaphosa has confirmed the theft, but has remained schtum on details, citing due process.
That was the case after a bruising Presidency Budget vote debate in June and again some two weeks later during a Q&A slot. And again on Tuesday, when the Phala Phala saga made the Order Paper as a question from African Transformation Movement (ATM) leader Vuyolwethu Zungula, who’s also motivated the current Section 89 impeachment inquiry process.
“I stand ready to cooperate and also to give an explanation and to cooperate with any investigations on this matter… I have responded to the various questions that have been raised and will continue to respond to the questions put to me by the relevant authorities,” Ramaphosa told MPs on Tuesday.
“The authorities have said it’s best they deal with all the attendant matters to the theft that occurred on the farm. I have been counselled and advised to address this matter when these processes have been done. I stand ready to take the nation into confidence.”
Just not now. And not to Parliament. That was the upshot of Ramaphosa’s scripted response to the question that had been submitted, in line with the rules, at least 16 calendar days earlier.
See in Daily Maverick: “Ramaphosa’s Farmgate scandal – a timeline of what we know (and don’t know) so far”
Or as EFF leader Julius Malema put it: “He said he can answer everyone else. And someone stands up to say he’s answered like they did in the Zuma era.”
It was a reference to ANC MP and Deputy Rural Development Minister Mcebisi Skwatsha, who just before him, said: “Sitting here, the President has adequately answered the question. And he has even referred to him being accountable.”
But that was the ANC line on Tuesday, also repeated by Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele who argued that no prescripts existed on how a question should be answered.
“It [the question] has been responded to. Response is the minimum word. You spoke and you were spoken back to. That’s how the President has responded.”
In many ways, this was a return to the Zuma Q&A sessions when questions would not be qualitatively answered and the then Speaker, Baleka Mbete, told affronted MPs: “You may not like the answer, but the question has been answered.”
It was not something the opposition benches wanted a repeat of, particularly as Parliament describes these presidential and ministerial Q&A sessions as vital for its constitutional responsibilities of oversight and holding the executive to account.
“If the President can get away with not answering questions, it renders the whole exercise futile,” said United Democratic Movement Chief Whip Nqabayomzi Kwankwa.
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‘Simply not good enough’
“It’s simply not good enough. The matter was allowed into the question paper. It must now be answered,” said DA Chief Whip Siviwe Gwarube.
The African Christian Democratic Party, IFP and others agreed.
The ATM’s Zungula said the President had just waffled.
“He speaks about law enforcement agencies, the same ones he did not believe in, because if he did he would have reported the theft. The bottom line is that the question is not answered,” said Zungula.
When Mapisa-Nqakula appeared to speak for Ramaphosa, saying the Section 89 impeachment inquiry would hear from the President — names for the three-person independent panel to assess if there’s a case to answer are due on Thursday — opposition parties nixed that.
The Speaker was told it was not her place — and in any case, the impeachment motion and the presidential question and answer sessions are two separate matters, both of which Ramaphosa needed to answer to.
While MPs misbehaved, including trading threats across the floor, some of the disruption stemmed from the Speaker failing to control proceedings. Mapisa-Nqakula raised her voice on several occasions, mixed up MPs’ names, forgot the order of points of order and evicted one EFF MP with a “Phuma [get out], boeti!”, and not by naming the person, as rules require.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Ramaphosa’s stolen millions: the Namibian connection”
Both sides of the House, the EFF and the ANC, stepped in to assist with the rules, even though Mapisa-Nqakula had a script to hand from which she appeared to be reading.
“Don’t put me under pressure,” the Speaker said as tempers roiled over the presidential (non) answer about Phala Phala. “Once you put me under this kind of pressure, it’s bad, bad for all of us.”
At the end of Tuesday’s session, however, she said she had “no regrets”.
When the argument that the President had answered failed to gain traction, the ANC changed tack to invoke Rule 140 which limits the presidential question slot to three hours. By that time it had been under way for well over four hours.
EFF Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu proposed a postponement to next week. But Gwarube rose to object, saying a Q&A session could not be abandoned when a question had not been answered with all its follow-ups.
The House was suspended for chief whips to consult, and then — seemingly reading from a tablet — ruled that the Chief Whips’ Forum, a consultative body that sits behind closed doors, would discuss what to do and bring it to Thursday’s programming committee.
Finish and klaar, and the House was adjourned.
“We have entered the twilight zone where the Speaker makes up rules as we go along,” said DA leader John Steenhuisen afterwards.
It remains to be seen whether a resumption of the Phala Phala question does take place, and whether a date earlier than the next presidential Q&A session at the end of September can be secured.
Previously, the opposition had to insist on compliance with the parliamentary rule that requires a President to be in the House answering questions at least once a term. Tuesday’s session was to make up for the missed Q&A date of the last term when it seemed the governing ANC counted the Presidency Budget Vote debate as such a session, according to programming committee discussions.
Tuesday’s proceedings in the House set a potentially dangerous precedent — a President may well decide to go on at length on a preferred question to run down the clock, and dodge the difficult responses.
And despite the opposition’s opposition, ultimately, Ramaphosa got a free pass. DM