According to recent news reports, African National Congress (ANC) spokesperson, Zizi Kodwa, has said that the president of South Africa will not answer questions in Parliament until it ‘sorts itself out’.
Kodwa described Parliament as a ‘circus’. By that he must have been referring to the events of 21 August and the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) chants of ‘pay back the money’ when it became clear that President Jacob Zuma would not be answering questions about upgrades to his Nkandla homestead.
The Powers and Privileges Committee is currently conducting its own hearings into what happened that day and it would be premature to pre-empt its findings. However, it is interesting that so far the committee has learnt that there seems to have been an instruction from ‘table staff’ at Parliament to turn down the sound when things got out of hand. This might be a rather extraordinary admission, given that the only purpose of the instruction must have been to spare the president embarrassment and to cut the feed to television.
A picture starts developing of a democratic institution being used in a partisan fashion. Add to this the speaker’s own conduct on that day, and this picture begins to look rather bleak. The perception has been that the president needs to be shielded from his constitutional obligation to account to Parliament. The president has come to Parliament only once this year to answer oral questions. This is an important act of accountability to the legislature, which is representative of the citizens of the country.
Appearing only once before Parliament is not in the spirit of democratic accountability
The ANC has said that the president will also be focusing on imbizos to get his message across. We know that Zuma feels far more comfortable in ANC-friendly crowds, doing the song-and-dance ritual and answering ‘soft’ questions, usually orchestrated in advance.
Like many politicians he is also a master of cunning, visiting areas where he is able to hand out food parcels and promise the earth while knowing he will never be formally held to account.
But unfortunately for the president, he does not have a choice as to whether he wishes to account to Parliament or not. The Constitution is clear that the legislature must exercise oversight over the executive. Question time is one such oversight tool. Mac Maharaj was quick to point out that the president has only appeared before Parliament once this year because of the elections and the curtailed Parliamentary calendar. Yet, even allowing for that, appearing only once before Parliament is not in the spirit of democratic accountability.
It sets a messy precedent if the head of state appears to disregard the rules
It is part of a broader trend, in which the president seems unable or unwilling to adhere to deadlines. He has been found wanting as far as timeous financial disclosure is concerned and his response to the Public Protector’s report on Nkandla was late. It sets a messy precedent if the head of state appears to disregard the rules or bend them to suit his narrow political needs.
The sooner further dates are set for oral question time, the better. Opposition parties are already suggesting the matter be taken up in Parliament, but of course the ANC in Parliament needs to play ball too and insist that the president face question time. Whether it is able to do so remains to be seen. If its work thus far on the Nkandla ad hoc committee is anything to go by, it does not inspire confidence.
And so the failure to account takes on many guises across our society. Also recently, the chairperson of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), Ellen Zandile Tshabalala, embroiled in a scandal over her qualifications, has engaged the services of an advocate during her Parliamentary hearing rather than simply producing her university degrees.
This situation has become a farce. Either she has the qualifications or she does not, and that ought to be easily verifiable. Quite why this matter has dragged on for so long is incomprehensible. Perhaps Tshabalala believes that if the SABC Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, can sit tight despite the Public Protector’s damning findings regarding a faked matric certificate, then she can do exactly the same? Motsoeneng seems to enjoy such political cover that he raised his own salary twice, wasted millions of rands without anyone’s authority, and still survives.
Building a culture of transparency and accountability starts at the top. Once the head of state cherry picks the matters he wants to account on and the fora in which he wishes to do so, it is open season for anyone else to do exactly the same: thereby undermining our ability to build a rules-based society that is fair to everyone.
Judith February, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria
An earlier version of this article appeared on Eyewitness News.