Dear President Ramaphosa, please ensure every MP memorises part VI of the Zondo report
Parliament — and its portfolio committees — have signally failed to hold the executive to account for its abuse of public funds and assets. There are no consequences for the corrupt, the incompetent, the feckless, the careless accounting officers and executive authorities that are culpable in the waste of resources
Dear Comrade President Cyril Ramaphosa,
We at the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA) are writing to you, with the greatest respect, to appeal to you to use your authority to send an important message to Parliament. We ask you to encourage every member of the portfolio committees to read the last 200 pages of part VI of the Zondo Commission report — and commit them to heart.
We are fully aware that this is a controversial request because it is you who is supposed to account to Parliament — on behalf of the executive. Yet here we are, South Africans committed to our Constitution, urging you to just this once disregard principles around the separation of powers to tell Parliament what it needs to do, as a matter of urgency.
IFAA’s particular interest in the Zondo Commission’s report stems from a research project we began in 2019 called “Checks and Balances” that was initiated by IFAA’s founder, the late former MP, Professor Ben Turok, shortly before he passed away.
It set out to examine why the checks and balances written into the South African Constitution have failed when it comes to acting on the recommendations of the Auditor-General to reduce “irregular, unauthorised and fruitless and wasteful expenditure” in the public sector.
IFAA noted Chief Justice Zondo’s assertion in the final commission report that “the evidence before the Commission is overwhelmingly in support of the view that the institution that is key to the performance of parliamentary oversight over the executive in South Africa is the Portfolio Committee” (RSA, VI(II): para 755).
Parliament — and its portfolio committees — have signally failed to hold the executive to account for its abuse of public funds and assets. There are no consequences for the corrupt, the incompetent, the feckless, the careless accounting officers and executive authorities that are culpable in the waste of resources.
These are the precious and scarce means that our people have asked the government they elected to muster for national development and improvements in the lives of citizens. Yet these resources have been plundered and are still being wasted — and nothing is done about it.
We at IFAA have wasted long months since we released our research findings, some time before any Zondo reports, trying to get Parliament to engage fully with the recommendations and urgings of the Auditor-General.
We were very lucky to get input and support for our research from the current chairperson of Scopa, Mkhuleko Hlengwa of the IFP, the Auditor-General at the time, the late Kimi Makwetu, and a number of opposition MPs. But we have been singularly unlucky in securing the assistance of the Speaker, the former Speaker, the Deputy Speaker and the House Chairperson of Committees, Cedric Frolick, despite our repeated attempts.
IFAA is not calling on the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority, the war rooms and the command councils. We are simply calling for elected MPs, in their portfolio committees, to read Part Six, Volume 2, pages 287 to 483 of the Zondo report — and recommend a way forward.
We regard the portfolio committees as the “engine room” of Parliament. They go through every clause in every law before they approve it. They look at the annual budgets, plans and reports of departments and state-owned companies that are attached to the minister whose “portfolio” they oversee.
Portfolio committees have very considerable powers to get information from the executive — but they do not wield these powers effectively in many instances, as the Zondo analysis outlines.
Problems with the performance of portfolio committees are not new. Parliament has commissioned at least four studies that have made concrete recommendations on how committees, and Parliament broadly, could improve their oversight work.
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The first report was in 1999 at the end of the first term of parliamentary democracy. This was the “Corder Report” which is frequently referred to by Chief Justice Zondo. He called on Parliament to revisit the Corder Report and its proposed Oversight and Accountability (Ovac) model for Parliament.
After Corder came the Asmal Ad Hoc Committee. Parliament implemented only one of its recommendations. Then came the Independent Review of Parliament in 2009, which endorsed the decade-long effort to craft an effective Ovac model for Parliament. It was put on the shelf after minor changes were made to the parliamentary Rules.
And you will remember that Comrade Kgalema Motlanthe chaired a “High-Level Panel” that made constructive suggestions. In this instance, Parliament did nothing at all.
We are not telling Parliament how to respond. We are under no illusions how challenging it will be to get a response from the portfolio committees — but we know it can be done. In what the Zondo report refers to as “The Frolic Letters” we are presented with a clear demonstration of both Parliament’s successes and failures in this regard.
As you know, in mid-2017, Mr Frolic in consultation with his ANC colleagues addressed the stories emerging in the media based on leaked emails from the Gupta business empire. He wrote to four portfolio committees — Home Affairs, Mineral Resources, Public Enterprises and Transport — asking them to urgently probe “recent accusations of State Capture linked to alleged emails involving a number of ministers”.
The committees were told to ensure “immediate engagement with the concerned ministers to ensure that Parliament gets to the bottom of the allegations”.
Only one committee, Public Enterprises, did so and the Zondo report looks in detail at why it succeeded while the other three failed. In so doing, it exposes the reasons why ANC MPs have been “disincentivised” by parliamentary Rules, by the ANC itself and by the electoral system from scrutinising the actions of the executive, government departments and state-owned entities.
The report explains why it is so difficult for portfolio committees to hold the executive to account, which ultimately led to wide-scale State Capture. This was all to the disadvantage of our people and to the disgrace of the liberation movement.
The Zondo report tells a compelling story of parliamentary malfunction that every Member of Parliament needs to understand because it is the current MPs who will implement any recommendations of the Zondo Report on parliamentary oversight.
The report asserts that State Capture was the result of the failure of the portfolio committee system in Parliament and makes it clear that fixing Parliament’s portfolio committee system is urgent and of the utmost importance.
The Institute for African Alternatives believes this finding of the Zondo Commission into State Capture is the most consequential of all its recommendations for the future of our democracy.
In our view, the Zondo report part VI(II) on Parliamentary Oversight is a truly excellent piece of work and we must use it to build a better future for our people and our democratic system of government.
The Institute for African Alternatives. DM
Martin Nicol is Acting Editor and Moira Levy Production Editor of the flagship publication of the Institute for African Alternatives, New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy. They write on behalf of the institute.