March 24, 2018

Parliament’s state capture inquiry has its hands full with Eskom

The status of Parliament’s inquiry into state capture now appears uncertain, after it finally got off the ground in August 2017 after months of fraught to-ing and fro-ing.

Amid much opposition and controversy, Parliament declared an inquiry of its own into state capture last year. Few had much appetite for it, but it seemed to be a better option than an official inquiry. Now that the latter seems unavoidable, what will become of the parliamentary inquiry?

It appears to have veered some way off course from the initial proposal announced by House Chairperson in the National Assembly Cedric Frolick. In its current form it is barely recognisable as the four-Committee investigation Parliament initially launched all those months ago.

That got off to a troubled start, but has since made its mark in the dramatic exposé of the role played by Eskom in draining the fiscus for the benefit of one family and its hangers-on. In this it has had a massive public impact.

It appears to have veered some way off course from the initial proposal announced by House Chairperson in the National Assembly Cedric Frolick.

However, it seems Parliament’s intention, albeit rather reluctantly at the start, was to take it beyond the Eskom inquiry, which it is now known as. At the time it aimed to take on other state-owned enterprises in a relatively far-reaching investigation into at least four government departments.

The unexpected January announcement by former president Jacob Zuma of an official judicial commission of inquiry to be conducted by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo has further muddied the waters, adding more uncertainty over where Parliament’s own inquiry is heading.

In one of the many unexpected twists of Zuma’s last days in office he took the country by surprise by declaring support for an official inquiry, which was first proposed by the former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, in her report on state capture submitted way back in 2016.

Back then Zuma showed no intention of complying, especially with Madonsela’s request that he “appoint, within 30 days, a commission of inquiry headed by a judge solely selected by the Chief Justice who shall provide one name to the President”. Zuma’s immediate response was to apply for a review.

For months he did what he could to obstruct the launch of an official inquiry, which made all the more startling his recent last-ditch attempt to curry favour and redeem himself with his 180 degree about-turn. He announced allegations that the “state has been wrestled out of the hands of its real owners, the people of South Africa” needed to be investigated.

While this process slowly gets underway – and Zuma may have later regretted his surprise decision because it then took some time to get his sign-off on the Commission’s Terms of Reference – the question remains. What now becomes of Parliament’s inquiry into the same matter?

Frolick’s instructions back in June 2017 were perfectly clear, albeit a bit surprising. It may be recalled that he announced four National Assembly Committees ‑ Home Affairs, Mineral Resources, Public Enterprises and Transport –were to probe state capture by “immediate engagement with the concerned Ministers to ensure that Parliament gets to the bottom of the allegations”.

That set off something of a hullabaloo, with the DA rejecting it as a “half-baked” probe and declaring that the House Chairperson did not have the authority to initiate it. The DA also registered concern that Committees do not have the investigative and legal resources to conduct such inquiries, a problem that the Committees themselves echoed.

Parliament went ahead anyway, in a manner of speaking, with the Committee of Public Enterprises stepping up to the plate and surprising everyone, probably itself included, by overcoming internal party political differences and conjuring up resources and the capacity to hit hard. It is determinedly still doing so, and showing no signs of giving up.

It certainly showed up the half-hearted efforts of the other three mandated Committees. To date Home Affairs appears to have done nothing at all. The Transport Portfolio Committee emerged fairly recently onto the investigation stage, calling on the Prasa Board to account for the appalling safety record and general non-delivery of its metrorail services.

It is hard to say whether this was in response to Frolick’s initial instructions, or a more general decision to conduct oversight. Or could it have been, at least in part, a response to the concerted and highly public civil society campaign driven by Unite Behind. This brought to its attention the shocking reality of how misplaced funds in Prasa had the effect of depriving many thousands of South Africans of an effective rail service, which they need to travel intolerable distances to work as the spatial geography of apartheid remains in place.

But the Transport Committee has now asked important question and is demanding to know more, and had roundly told off the Prasa Board for its initial non-appearance before the Committee.

The Mineral Resources Committee has been embarrassed and not a little angered by former mining minister Mosebenzi Zwane’s failure to pitch up when called by the Committee on least two occasions.

That followed his peculiar comment at his first and only appearance last year, when he asked, “Why does this Committee just have an interest in my meeting with just one family? I meet many businesspeople as I do my work. It is the same with this family.”

Another non-appearance in February led to an announcement by Committee Chairperson Sahlulele Luzipo a week ago that it is now “instituting a full-scale inquiry into allegations of state capture levelled against Minister Mosebenzi Zwane”.

This was a bit awkward, as Frolick had come up with the same idea more than a year ago and mandated the Committee to do exactly that. But the Committee Chair explained that Frolick’s letter was not prescriptive on what process the Committee needed to undertake in order to establish the veracity of the state capture allegations levelled against Minister Zwane. The process was left to the Committee’s discretion, and it first gave him an opportunity to answer the questions, in order to test the veracity of the allegations.

Frolick confirmed that the Mineral Resources Committee “took a very dim few of the reasons given for non-attendance and lack of co-operation” by the former Minister.

Is this then what is left of Parliament’s brave stand? Frolick’s main concern is to remind us that the important thing is that Parliament continues to exercise its all-important oversight duties.

Whether or not the pending Zondo inquiry will bring an end to Parliament’s halting efforts appears unknown, and not of major concern to him. What is important for Frolick, he said, is that “The work of the Parliamentary Committees is ongoing.”

Frolick welcomed the Transport Committee’s engagements with Prasa on “a range of matters in the public domain such as governance issues, rail safety, etc.” That’s not the end of it, he seemed to say, describing the evidence given by former CEO of Prasa, Lucky Montana, to the Public Enterprises Committee as “explosive”.

Among other things, Montana referred to an informal meeting at the home of former Deputy Minister Ben Martins where he met Duduzane Zuma and Rajesh ‘Tony’ Gupta who were clearly interested in a tender to supply commuter trains. “The Committee cannot ignore these serious allegations and it must be prioritised,” said Frolick, suggesting that he doesn’t see an end to Parliament’ work on state capture any time soon.

But whether or not Parliament’s inquiry will be conducted parallel to the official inquiry remains uncertain. Frolick said a decision will be “taken in due course in respect of the work done by the relevant parliamentary Committees upon an indicative commencement of the announced judicial commission of inquiry. Currently timeframes are not available from the commission as to when it will commence its work.”

Frolick would not be drawn on the future of the inquiry, repeating that the important thing is for Parliament to keep on ensuring that the Executive is held to account.

“In the meantime, Committees in the National Assembly must exercise [its] oversight functions in line with the Constitution and the Rules of the National Assembly. In addition, the Money Bills and Related Matters Act of 2009 demand from Committees to exercise financial oversight over government departments and entities. Furthermore, reports from the Auditor-General on departments and entities must be interrogated on an ongoing basis by SCOPA and the relevant Portfolio Committees.

“It remains the responsibility of public representatives in Parliament to exercise oversight over the Executive and to hold them individually and collectively accountable for executive action and decisions. This function cannot be outsourced and is [a] constitutionally mandatory.”

Moira Levy

Notes from the House has been keeping track of Parliament’s Inquiry into State Capture from the start.

Last modified on Thursday, 01 March 2018 21:03

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Notes from the House is an independent weekly email newsletter that tracks and monitors Parliament in its role of holding government to account and passing legislation to improve people’s lives. It aims to bring you the news from Parliament that you don’t get elsewhere. Published by Moira Levy with the support of the Claude Leon Foundation.

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