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18 November 2017 10:15 (South Africa)
Opinionista Judith February

Jacob Zuma’s questionable replies make a mockery of Question Time

  • Judith February
    Judith-February.jpg
    Judith February

    Judith February is a governance specialist, columnist and lawyer. She  was previously executive director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance unit and also head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme for 12 years.

President Jacob Zuma has become a master at dodging questions, especially ones that cause any sense of discomfort.

This presidency is a crime in progress.” Agang’s Andries Tloulamma might have inadvertently come up with the best response during last week’s presidential question time.

President Jacob Zuma recorded yet another pitiful performance. He has become a master at dodging questions, especially ones that cause any sense of discomfort. Last week these related to state capture and specifically Zuma’s alleged role in awarding contracts and jobs to his family members and close associates.

All he would say was that he was taking legal advice about setting up a Commission of Inquiry into state capture allegations to “see how far it goes”. Funny that, since Zuma has been saying this for many months now. When he came to Parliament in June, he reiterated the need for a Commission of Inquiry and then said he agreed that “state capture is a big thing” (sic). Of course Zuma is taking the Public Protector’s report on state capture on review. The matter has been set down for late October. It is not surprising then that he is dragging the matter out. Surely he has no appetite for such an inquiry when he himself is central to the allegations?

Question time is key to holding the executive to account and the president in particular, but that can only happen if MPs, particularly those in the ANC, insist on substantive answers to questions and if the Speaker prevails upon the president to answer in a manner that respects Parliament. In an ideal world, the president himself would seek to provide as much information to Parliament as possible or, alternatively, at least show sufficient respect for the institution. Unfortunately with this president that is not the case.

Question time has always been rather fraught. Former President Thabo Mbeki often had a way of gliding over detail or answering questions in a contorted manner; both tactics often got us no closer to the complete answer sought. And already then ANC MPs were used to putting “sweetheart questions” to their president.

Zuma has of course taken evading questions to new levels. Last week ANC MPs put a range of their own sweetheart questions to the president, providing him with plenty of room to discuss matters such as the G20 and BRICS. Neither is as pressing to South Africa as rampant corruption, state capture, increasing levels of unemployment and a government which seems to have lost its moorings.

Our unemployment rate (by the narrow definition) is at a staggering 27.7% and the recent StatsSA report shows that 30.4-million South Africans live in poverty. Questions asked by ANC MPs relating to service delivery were so basic that Zuma was allowed to rattle off “achievements” such as the presidential hotline, the ‘Back to Basics’ programme as well as Batho Pele.

How can any of this be working optimally when the president himself is implicated in corruption and when the Minister of Public Service and Administration, Faith Muthambi, failed to appear before Parliament to answer questions regarding nepotism and corruption herself. There is no indication that Zuma will fire her either, or any of the other ministers who have much to answer for, such as Bathabile Dlamini, Edna Molewa and Nomvula Mokonyane.

No ANC MP asked the President questions directly related to the statistics about unemployment and poverty or about his role in self-sabotaging the economy. In fact, Zuma’s response to an opposition question on the firing of Gordhan was a stretch even for Zuma. His answer in a nutshell displayed the reckless disregard for which Zuma is now known. The global economy was in crisis, he said, and many countries’ economies had experienced challenges even without changing finance ministers.

Here is a president who failed to understand the gravity of his actions when he fired Gordhan and Jonas earlier this year. Indeed, the global economy faces many challenges and South Africa’s economy is especially fragile, so why exacerbate the situation by appointing two compromised, inexperienced men to finance portfolios? The answer is obvious now that we have more information at our disposal, thanks to the #GuptaLeaks.

On the question of Grace Mugabe’s diplomatic immunity, Zuma simply “did not know”. When asked whether there was outside interference in the appointment of his special adviser for energy, Zuma simply said, “I took my decision.”

And so it went on – a perfect study in lack of accountability by a head of state.

It has become clear that Zuma is entirely disconnected from the state he presides over and the citizens he is meant to lead. He is now wholly focused on ensuring that his preferred successor, the unimaginative Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, wins at the ANC elective conference in December. Zuma has no other goals for his administration.

Parliament itself has become like a Roman spectacle. Last Thursday’s question time took an hour to get started with the EFF hurling insults at Zuma. “He is a criminal!” someone shouted. Zuma, unable to command the respect of the House, given that he is implicated in so many scandals, is fair game for such theatre. Yet the theatrics have their limit. Zuma is cunning enough to know the EFF will be asked to leave the House eventually, so he is able to laugh it all off – which he did.

Perhaps the EFF should change tack and strategy and start putting the penetrating questions to Zuma without the insults and the silly points of order? Imagine Presidential Question Time in which no noise is heard, just the direct question to a president who flails while trying to answer. If the question goes unanswered, the record will reflect that. That may well speak louder than anything else.

Question time is not a tool for accountability. Instead it has become a lesson in obfuscation and yet another example of Zuma’s legacy – the hollowing out of democratic institutions. DM

  • Judith February
    Judith-February.jpg
    Judith February

    Judith February is a governance specialist, columnist and lawyer. She  was previously executive director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance unit and also head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme for 12 years.

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