December 02, 2020

Oversight revived as more parliamentary inquiries into state capture emerge

The heady combination of Ramaphoria and Zumaphobia appears to have re-energised Parliament, especially in the Committee rooms where the parliamentary duty of oversight is mostly carried out.

Suddenly parliamentary commissions of inquiry are back on the agenda, and as the dramatically successful investigation by the Public Enterprises Committee into Eskom reaches a close, albeit without the appearance of its most wanted crooks, there are a number of Committees read to take up the baton.

Already in the pipeline are commissions of inquiry proposed by the Committee of Water and Sanitation, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and the Committee on Mineral Resources. Given how difficult it was to get the parliamentary inquiry into state capture off the ground last year, this does point to a shift in parliamentary thinking.

Corruption won’t go away because Ramaphosa said that it would. A lot of hard work still lies ahead.

Zuma’s departure opened the Pandora’s box on state capture and while corruption won’t go away because Ramaphosa said that it would, there appears to be agreement that a lot of hard work still lies ahead.

It probably has something to do with the soon-to-be launched, long-awaited official commission of inquiry into state capture, under Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, which had been kept under lock and key since it was proposed by the former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, in October 2016.

Credit must also go to the inquiry conducted by the Public Enterprises Committee. It took up where the Gupta leaks left off, and made sure that South Africa heard the culprits themselves owning up to unimaginable levels of corruption.

It is not even a year since the Public Enterprises Committee first attempted to call former Minister of Public Enterprises Lynne Brown and the Eskom board to give evidence, only to be told the matter was “sub judice” and the meeting was promptly cancelled.

It is important to recall that when the idea of a parliamentary commission of inquiry was first mooted, it was pooh-poohed by the official opposition as a “half-baked” idea. The DA said what was needed was an Ad Hoc Committee, and warned that Committees don’t have the resources to conduct a commission of inquiry.

True. Most of the time. Even the Public Enterprises Committee itself had some doubts, and warned that it didn’t have the legal and research capacity to conduct anything more than the usual parliamentary Committee activity, with only its powers of subpoena to draw on.

Acting Chair Zukiswa Rantho warned it will not be a straightforward process, especially as it was the first time that a Committee had been involved in an investigation of this scale.

Rantho had to ask Parliament for additional researchers and legal staff, and for the services of Advocate Ntuthuzelo Vanara, Senior Legal Adviser at Parliament and SABC Ad Hoc Committee evidence leader, only to be told at first that he was too busy being the Registrar of Members’ Interests.

Rantho and her Committee set aside party differences and stood firm, announcing they were prepared to work “ungodly hours” to fulfil this oversight duty and “save our country [by making] sure our government is accountable”.

Kyk hoe lyk hulle nou?

Without being overly optimistic – these are unpredictable times ‑ one thing has become clear. Committee oversight has gained a new momentum, and many Committees now deserve the title bestowed on them back in 1994 when they were known as the “engines of Parliament”.

More recently, commissions of inquiry have now taken their place in the parliamentary discourse. Given what we are learning of the extent of state capture, they have a critical role to play.

We are reminded that a year ago the House Chairperson of Committees, Cedric Frolick, announced that four National Assembly Committees ‑ Home Affairs, Mineral Resources, Public Enterprises and Transport – would probe state capture by “immediate engagement with the concerned Ministers to ensure that Parliament gets to the bottom of the allegations”.

But not much happened. There were a few embarrassing non-appearances by the then Minister of Mineral Resources, Mosebenzi Zwane, and one memorable appearance when he tossed aside questions about his relationship with the Gupta, asking “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.”

Back then it looked as if the Public Enterprises Committee was on its own. But post-Zuma, the notion of holding commissions of inquiry into different aspects of state capture seems to have grabbed the imagination of a number of Committee Chairpersons.

Just this week the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee for Energy, Fikile Majola, said what was needed was a different approach to oversight in order to hold State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) such as Eskom more accountable.

Adopting the new language of Ramaphosa, he used a discussion about proposed percentage price increases for electricity to remind us that what was needed was a “new dawn” on how parliamentary committees practiced their oversight responsibility.

This week another parliamentary commission of inquiry was announced at a joint meeting of the Water and Sanitation Committee and the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa).

This follows investigations last year into Department of Water and Sanitation overspending close to R111m of its budget during the 2016/17 financial year, while achieving only 48% of its performance targets. The Committee described this at the time as a “significant disjuncture” between what was spent and what the Department achieved. Accruals, irregular and unauthorised spending of R1.3bn and failure to pay invoices within the specified 30-day period were also reported.

The Portfolio Committee on Water and Sanitation decided at the time that an investigation was called for, and Scopa indicated its willingness to take part. Committee Chairpersons of the Portfolio Committee of Water and Sanitation Lulu Johnson and Themba Godi of Scopa are now talking about terms of reference for a full-scale inquiry that could bring in the Auditor-General, National Treasury and the Special Investigative Unit, amongst others.

The co-chairpersons are making it clear that the investigation has been escalated to a full-scale inquiry. A public participation process will be conducted, but over and above the usual parliamentary investigations and consultation it has been agreed that there is a need for an evidence leader to conduct the inquiry, which will work with law enforcement where there are any illegal transgressions.

This Commission of Inquiry will probably start after the Easter recess and aims to wrap up its investigation in 60 days. And it is not alone.

The reality of state capture and intransigence of the former Mineral Resources Minister resulted in the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources, Sahlulele Luzipo, announcing in February that his Committee would institute a full-scale inquiry into allegations of state capture and call in the former Minister Zwane to appear before it.

This decision came after protracted but futile efforts to get answers from the former Minister that date back to June 2017 when Frolick first called on the Committee to investigate.

Luzipo told Notes from the House that the Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources held a meeting on 16 August 2017 to discuss the process of investigating the allegations involving Minister Zwane. On 18 October 2017 the Committee held a meeting whereby the Minister was afforded the opportunity to respond to the allegations of state capture. The Committee ran out of time but the Minister promised to return to respond to the questions that had been put to him.

On 1 November, the Committee invited the Minister to attend the continuation of the meeting but the Minister indicated that he was off sick and could not attend on that date. On the 14 February 2018 the Minister was again invited to appear before the Committee but he tendered an apology as he was writing exams and proposed the date of the 21st February 2018.

On 19th February, the Committee received an apology from the Minister indicating that he could not attend the Committee meeting as he would be appearing before the NCOP plenary.

On 20th February 2018, the Minister wrote back to the Committee indicating that he is not available as he will be attending the Select Committee on Petitions and Executive Undertakings.

“In my capacity as the Chairperson I wrote back to the Minister highlighting the importance of the meeting and the frequent postponements which were delaying the progress of the matter,” Chairperson Luzipo said.

“The Committee met on 21 February 2017 and considered several options for dealing with the allegations involving the Minister of Mineral Resources in state capture. After discussions, Members agreed unanimously that the Committee should launch a formal oversight inquiry in the weeks ahead and that when Minister Zwane’s evidence is required, he should be served a subpoena to attend, given his past failures to respect the Committee.”

The Mineral Affairs Resources Committee intends to write to House Chairperson Frolick to ask for someone with a law background to lead evidence in the inquiry. The evidence leader will assist in finalising the inquiry’s terms of reference, investigating evidence and identifying key witnesses.

“The allegations have been hanging for far too long, thereby necessitating a need to move with speed, without compromising the integrity of the process,” said Luzipo.

Moira Levy

Last modified on Thursday, 15 March 2018 13:35

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Notes from the House is an independent online publication that tracks and monitors Parliament’s role in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to improve the lives of South African citizens. Published by Moira Levy with the support of the Claude Leon Foundation.

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