Opinionista John Steenhuisen 31 May 2018

Parliament’s Joint Ethics Committee – Who will watch the watchers?

It would be a terrible legacy for the fifth Parliament to leave behind if it has failed to hold its own members accountable and allowed members of Parliament to escape the scrutiny and accountability they demand of others. This would also render the code of ethical conduct for members toothless and only serve to further erode the public trust in the institution of Parliament.

The Ancient Roman Poet Juvenal in his work Satires famously asked the question:Who will watch the watchers?”

This is an important question because in any democratic system, those who exercise oversight over others should themselves be subject to the same level of scrutiny. The answer to this question Juvenal poses, certainly in a parliamentary instance, is the joint ethics committee of Parliament, responsible for enforcing the code of ethical conduct for members of Parliament in both the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces.

Sadly, however, this important committee has been an abject failure in the fifth democratic Parliament and has been rendered completely moribund by the pedestrian committee leadership of Amos Masondo, ousted mayor of Johannesburg and NCOP member Aumsen Singh. Clearly neither has even the most basic understanding of how ethics committees should work nor how to effectively run fair processes and investigations. The committee has only met once this year in March, the previous meeting being in November the previous year. This is despite a massive backlog of complaints against members of Parliament, ranging from assault, abuse of women to dishonesty, theft of public money, lying to Parliament and other serious transgressions.

It is an indictment on the chairs of the ethics committee that the important work of this committee, deeply respected for its non-partisan and professional approach under the tenure of former chairperson Ben Turok, has been reduced to a clumsy partisan political hit squad. When opposition members of Parliament are in the cross-hairs, the chairpersons move with ruthless efficiency and then when ANC members are required to be investigated it suddenly transforms itself into a lumbering and impotent organ.

A good example of this was the frivolous and jumped-up accusations made by the former ANC chief whip against the leader of the opposition. The committee quickly leapt into action, meetings were hastily convened to swiftly prosecute the matter. The ANC component eagerly ensured that they had full and regular attendance at the meetings. Masondo and Singh had no compunction selectively sharing titbits of the “prosecution” of this case with the media, despite an oath of confidentiality. When it became obvious that Masondo and his ANC team on the committee were far more interested in a political bludgeoning rather than a fair and transparent process, the DA was forced to approach the courts for justice. The ruling of the court in this matter embarrassingly exposed their agenda and the devious and sloppy work of the committee. The judgment was a scathing indictment of the committee and certainly instructive, where it found that “the committee did not follow the fundamental rules of procedural justice, the Constitution, and at least the very code of ethics they are required to enforce”.

Sadly the remarkable prioritisation and urgency displayed on complaints against DA members has not been replicated when it relates to complaints against ANC members. This is why the committee has failed to meet to process the slew of complaints against ANC comrades. A stellar example of this is the serious complaint lodged against errant ANC MP, Mduduzi Manana for assaulting a woman in a nightclub. Despite the fact that the criminal case was concluded months ago and Manana found guilty, the ethics committee is yet to finalise the matter. Manana has recently had a second complaint lodged against him at the ethics committee for the alleged assault of his domestic worker, yet the ethics committee has not even got to grips with finalising the first matter. Masondo and Singh will no doubt set out a plethora of reasons why they have been unable to convene this committee. These are all frankly a smokescreen for poor leadership and unwillingness to get down to work.

If we are to hold others accountable as Parliament, then we must ensure that our own accountability mechanisms are sound and beyond reproach. It is therefore essential that the Speaker intervenes in this matter. A good place to start would be for her to ensure the replacement of Masondo and Singh – surely four years of failure and lack of leadership is enough time to assess their unsuitability for the role?

The Speaker should then second some legal advisers to the committee to assist with assessing the backlog of cases and the committee should work through the upcoming two-month parliamentary recess in order to get to grips with performing its functions and ensuring that the case backlog is finalised before the Parliament rises. It would be a terrible legacy for the fifth Parliament to leave behind if it has failed to hold its own members accountable and allowed members of Parliament to escape the scrutiny and accountability they demand of others. This would also render the code of ethical conduct for members toothless and only serve to further erode the public trust in the institution of Parliament. DM

John Steenhuisen MP is a DA member of Parliament and the Chief Whip of the Opposition

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