Can SA's Parliament redeem itself as an oversight mechanism?

How Parliament conducts its state capture inquiry will be a test for future responses to corruption.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has inherited a country in disarray. Public finances are a mess and it will take time to strengthen democratic institutions and entrench a culture of accountability. Corruption, excess and former president Jacob Zuma’s breaches of the constitution have diminished trust in institutions and elected representatives.

Parliament, too, became a site for the ruling African National Congress’s (ANC) own factional battles. This was evident in the way Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete protected Zuma during Question Time sessions and during the Nkandla investigation. In this environment, the former president and his executive were spared exacting oversight, and ANC MPs protected their own positions.

Parliament’s mandate is clearly set out in the constitution. In terms of s55, Parliament must ‘initiate and prepare legislation and the National Assembly must provide for mechanisms … to maintain oversight of the exercise of national executive authority, including the implementation of legislation; and any organ of state’. Parliament is constitutionally charged with exercising oversight to ensure ‘accountability, responsiveness and openness’ in government.

Dealing with corruption meaningfully in Parliament became nigh impossible in the past decade. However the political sands have shifted dramatically since the ANC’s conference in December 2017, and Parliament has renewed vigour regarding ‘state capture’ in particular. With the unexpected postponement of the State of the Nation address last week, Parliament has not officially opened – but its committee work continues.

Zuma and his executive were spared exacting oversight, with ANC MPs protecting their own positions

The state capture inquiry started in mid-October 2017 and resumed in late January after the parliamentary recess. Given that Zuma announced the commission of inquiry into state capture last December, the way in which this committee continues its work will be interesting. House chairperson Cedric Frolick’s written instruction to the designated committees – home affairs, mineral resources, public enterprises and transport – were to engage with the allegations of state capture ‘within the parameters of the Assembly Rules governing the business of committees and consistent with the constitutionally enshrined oversight function of Parliament’.

Parliament’s inquiry doesn’t have the force of a commission of inquiry, but nevertheless the way in which it is conducted will be an important test for the way Parliament deals with corruption-related issues in future. It’s handling of the Nkandla matter showed how weak Parliament was in holding the president to account. The ad hoc committee on Nkandla essentially exonerated Zuma and found that he had ‘accidentally’ enriched himself.

It was the public protector, backed by the courts, who ensured Zuma paid back almost R8 million that was irregularly spent on his private residence.

Parliament's inquiry into state capture doesn't have the force of a commission of inquiry

Political change can provide a strange impetus. Parliament, in its state capture inquiry, seems to have found some of its voice – well, some ANC MPs have. Some rather damning evidence has been heard in relation to corporate governance at Eskom. In late November 2017, Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown was grilled regarding appointments at the power utility. As early as August last year she questioned the committee’s purpose. The evidence specifically in relation to Eskom saw Brown come under fire and be called ‘captured’ – to which she vehemently objected.

Brown has ended up in cross-examination-like tussles with Pravin Gordhan – a former cabinet colleague and now member of the public enterprises committee. On the appointments processes at Eskom, Brown told the committee in November 2017: ‘In conclusion, let me state unequivocally that I do not take instructions from anybody.’ She has repeatedly tried to discredit the parliamentary process and described it as not giving those who testify the right of reply.

But whatever the politicians say, the parliamentary inquiry will continue its work. More and more information and evidence about malfeasance at the Public Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and Eskom will no doubt enter the public domain. This can only be a good thing.

Of course, more will be revealed by the commission of inquiry into state capture led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. This will ensure that the recommendations of former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report are drawn to their logical conclusion.  

The allegations and evidence of state capture raised in Parliament must not be left unattended

With the extensive media coverage on corruption and the state capture hearings in Parliament, South Africans have plenty of information at their disposal. So how do people ‘join the dots’ between the information they have and a proper democratic outcome? Civil society must remain vigilant and continue its activism in Parliament and outside its walls.

It means monitoring institutions such as Parliament far more closely. The detailed accounts of allegations and evidence of corruption raised in Parliament must not be left unattended. It is only by ensuring accountability for those who betrayed our democracy to enrich themselves that we can ever hope to begin tackling the critical challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Eventually Parliament too will produce its own state capture report. If the report sees the light of day and is a credible account of the evidence presented, it will stand as evidence of the abuse of power, maladministration and blatant theft that characterised Zuma’s presidency. What happens thereafter will be a matter for the prosecuting authority, but Parliament will have done its work.

Judith February, Senior Research Consultant, ISS

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Picture: GovernmentZA/Flickr

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