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Parliament is a cushy recycling centre for damaged poli...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Parliament is a cushy recycling centre for damaged politicians rather than a beacon of public accountability

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Matt Johnston is the Head of Research, Policy and Parliamentary Engagement at the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse.

Tainted politicians continue to be recycled to powerful positions in Parliament, reinforcing concerns over the ongoing capture of that institution. This underlines the urgent need for decisive and rational political leadership to eliminate those with questionable backgrounds from party lists, and for civil society to play a stronger role in oversight.

If any new democratic dispensation needs a handbook on how to avoid accountability, South Africa has written it.

The redeployment of Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to the most powerful position in Parliament – as the Speaker of the National Assembly – followed by the Joint Standing Committee on Defence hurriedly dropping an inquiry into her conduct, shows that Parliament remains under the control of those deeply implicated in State Capture. Retaining control of Parliament gives that group the tools to block accountability and retain influence – over and above more immediate financial and legal privileges.

Powerful and lucrative positions in Parliament, such as the Speaker and chairs of committees, are being used to provide a soft landing for politically connected people who should have done a walk of shame, never to return to public office. Their presence in those positions further erodes the oversight role: instead of seeing consequences for wrongdoing, they are rewarded.

During August, Mapisa-Nqakula was fired by President Cyril Ramaphosa as minister of defence, but was then voted in by the ANC’s MPs as Speaker. Adding insult to injury, her nomination seems to have been the result of an ANC directive given by none other than Gwede Mantashe. This sort of manipulation is one of the mechanisms supporting State Capture which was dealt with at the Zondo Commission.

As Speaker, she will decide on the way forward in crucial parliamentary inquiries including the impeachment of Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe and the inquiry into the fitness of Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. All these matters are critically linked to aspects of State Capture.

As a civil society organisation committed to accountable governance, Outa has been monitoring, engaging and only marginally influencing Parliament for some years. The goal has always been to enhance the effectiveness of parliamentary oversight of public sector expenditure, but this simple aspiration turned out to be more ambitious than we first thought.

Inclusiveness is a crucial aspect of good oversight. Parliament should be listening to views outside party politics as well – to civil society and the broader public – to ensure that information considered is not just that provided by the executive to a compliant committee. To use the public protector’s analogy: think of parents repeatedly giving teenagers pocket money purely based on their stated needs and expenses, to the exclusion of evidence that the money is squandered on alcohol – it makes no sense. 

We have been offering alternative information to some parliamentary committees to improve oversight. But this activity lost meaning when, after the national and provincial elections in 2019, State Capture suspects who had been ministers were returned to Parliament as ordinary MPs and then became chairpersons of key portfolio committees in an apparent negotiation between conflicting ideological poles of the ruling party. Examples here are former ministers Mosebenzi Zwane, Faith Muthambi, Bongani Bongo and Tina Joemat-Pettersson.

In a committee reshuffle in late August, Bongo was removed as chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs because he is facing criminal charges. While this is welcomed, he remains an ANC MP remunerated from the public purse. It is also worth noting that he has been facing those charges for some time. Also, he and others like Muthambi and Zwane are supposedly under investigation by the Joint Standing Committee on Ethics and Members’ Interests, where OUTA has laid complaints.

In the same reshuffle, Muthambi left her position as chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs but was elected to chair the new PC on Environmental Affairs. Former North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo, who presided over a province riddled with corruption and failed governance, now chairs the PC on International Relations and Cooperation.

Former Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni, who appears to be staying on as an MP, was appointed as a member of the PC on Water and Sanitation but overlooked as a potential committee chairperson.

ANC MPs who had pushed for better oversight during the fifth Parliament lost their jobs after the election. Daphne Rantho (ANC), who arguably performed her duty of oversight most effectively as the chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises – which conducted the inquiry into corporate governance and corruption at Eskom – was anonymously threatened during the proceedings. Despite their sterling work in the interests of the country, neither Rantho nor her ANC colleagues made it back into the 6th Parliament.

The erosion of parliamentary oversight continues. Further, Parliament’s ability and willingness to hold itself accountable has come into question. The internal ethics committee mentioned above is a core custodian of the rules and conduct of MPs, but its meetings and work are strictly confidential. That means we simply cannot know whether they are doing anything with complaints Outa laid more than three years ago. If the inaction to date is deliberate, they either felt that the evidence we handed over to them isn’t compelling enough – or they were instructed to ignore it. There is no transparency.

Problematic institutions such as the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation and the Central Energy Fund are now contending that they do not have to submit themselves to parliamentary scrutiny. Parliament’s legal opinion has rather vaguely suggested that all organs of state that benefit from public funds are, in principle, accountable to Parliament, and that MPs are at liberty to call virtually anyone to account. But what if dubious MPs choose not to call them to account? Shouldn’t such obvious loopholes result in the law and the rules of Parliament being rewritten?

Fundamental and systemic shortcomings in parliamentary oversight that were exposed at the Zondo Commission are nowhere near resolved. However, some positive things have been happening in the Executive and in Parliament: there are proposals to enhance professionalism in the public service, to deconstruct the dysfunctional monopolies of Eskom and Transnet, and to reform government procurement through the Public Procurement Bill.

Yet these breakthroughs are at risk of being watered down by parliamentarians who would rather see South Africa gutted and divided than end a corrupt and backward-looking dispensation.

We have become acutely aware of how directly major political parties benefit from the failure of accountability in Parliament itself: MPs get large salaries to serve you and me, but when serious allegations of State Capture arise, they claim there is no budget for inquiries into corruption and maladministration. This is how then Minister of Mineral Resources Zwane evaded consequences.

Now we have a Parliament dominated by MPs who vote individuals with significant ethical questions hanging over them into powerful and lucrative positions where they are able to block accountability of government spending and activities. The ANC may justify this as keeping peace between its warring factions, but the result for the public is the entrenchment of a culture of failed oversight by Parliament.

We need a Speaker who will promote oversight, not one with a history of abusing funds and refusing to account. We need a Parliament that does not take instructions from the Executive, the very people it is constitutionally mandated to oversee and hold to account.

This is not a pipedream – this is an immediately realisable call to action. 

Political parties, especially the ANC, have the prerogative to deploy and dismiss MPs as they see fit. We’ve seen recently how disgraced politicians, such as Zweli Mkhize, who was relieved of his duties as minister of health because of allegations of procurement irregularity and nepotism, are being shuffled into parliamentary committee roles.

The problems of partisan bias in parliamentary oversight exposed at the Zondo Commission are worsening. Parliament has become a cushy recycling centre for damaged goods, rather than a beacon of hope for public accountability. This Goliath must be struck down quickly and efficiently, and it will be.

The president, and the leadership of all political parties more generally, need to now show strength and ferocity – even if to the party’s detriment. 

We, The People, now need a Parliament that takes its cue from organised civil society and, more importantly, from you and me – not from partners in crime. DM

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