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Parliament to put South Africa’s July unrest on the agenda – once it settles its own ructions

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Marianne Merten has written on Parliament since 2016 for Daily Maverick. The intersection of governance, policy and politics unfolds at many levels, from tiny nuggets of information hidden in the voluminous stacks of papers tabled at the national legislature to the odd temper tantrum by a politician. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes baffling, even after 26 years as a hack, there are few dull days in the parliamentary corridors.

Not all’s happy in parliamentary corridors.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Several of Parliament’s committees have trekked to KwaZulu-Natal and Gau­teng to see for themselves the damage caused by 10 days of public disorder in July. It’s part of oversight.

MPs from small business development, home affairs and social development followed the trail set by the police committee and Joint Standing Committee on Defence, which were briefed by people in uniform (on the quiet). Then things took a turn that signals not all’s happy in parliamentary corridors.

House Chairperson for Committees Cedric Frolick joined the police and defence committees on 21 July, and publicly announced a parliamentary inquiry into the July public disorder. It’s similar to the June 2017 directive he issued to four National Assembly committees to look into #GuptaLeaks. Only the Eskom State Capture inquiry ran its course. What did and didn’t happen at Parliament has been excruciatingly ventilated at the State Capture Commission.

On 22 July it emerged that the then still National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise had written to all political parties to propose an extraordinary, extended debate on the July public disorder, to be scheduled as soon as lawmakers return in mid-August.

In the meantime, Parliament’s official statement said, Modise had also asked that all committees doing oversight should “prioritise their engagement … and report to the National Assembly as soon as possible before the House reconvenes”.

That’s why, from late July, a flurry of committees went to KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, and the basic education committee was briefed on damage to schools there. But the police and defence committees employed smooth parliamentary politicking, armed with legal opinion, to get out of the hard place between inquiry and extended debate – and internal politicking.

Rule 227 (3) came in handy. “If there is doubt which portfolio committee must deal with a specific matter, the Speaker in consultation with the [ANC] Chief Whip must decide … subject to any directions of the rules committee or a resolution of the Assembly.”

With that the police committee and Joint Standing Committee on Defence referred the inquiry back to Modise amid verbal bumf about how “the establishment of this inquiry must be legally sound and guided by the rules of Parliament”.

Meanwhile, the DA seemed to have missed the memo, or maybe just didn’t want to cancel the 2 August PR op to outline its expectations of such an (non-existent) inquiry.

At Thursday’s programming meeting, Frolick hit back. No oversight had been done in KwaZulu-Natal, where MPs just sat in a five-and-a-half-hour meeting (presumably the “confidential” briefing by security persons). And in Gauteng, many questions elicited few answers from police – hence the need for a full-blown inquiry.

But the police and defence committees having asked Speaker and ANC chief whip Pemmy Majodina to consult touches another fault line. With Modise’s often-lengthy absences from Parliament during Covid-19 – 7 August marks Lockdown Day 499 – DM168 was told Majodina put a stop to at least two committee sessions in recent months.

Most recently, Majodina emerged in a complaint to Frolick about the hours kept by the cooperative governance committee, the Sunday Times reported in July. The committee’s MPs each denied having complained, instead pledging to work it all out so they could oversee municipalities.

Previously, during the former Eastern Cape public works MEC’s stint as chief whip, a parallel oversight structure, the ANC Caucus Local Government Task Team, was established.

This task team brings together the study groups of ANC MPs from the standing committees on Public Accounts (Scopa), the Auditor-General and appropriations alongside the cooperative governance committee. That local government task team is led by Majodina with, curiously, National Council of Provinces (NCOP) Chairperson Amos Masondo. It’s unclear why the NCOP presiding officer is involved in National Assembly matters.

South Africans are used to government and governing party factional turf battles. Not so much from Parliament where, as SA’s supreme law stipulates, elected public representatives must “ensure government by the people under the Constitution”.

Enquiring into and debating the July disorder in KZN and Gauteng will be pivotal moments for Parliament. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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