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[OPINION] How do we fix a country in disarray?

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has inherited a country in disarray. Our public finances and democratic institutions are a mess. It will be an uphill battle fixing what former president Jacob Zuma broke – and it will take time to entrench a culture of accountability within our institutions. Corruption, excess and Zuma’s breaches of the Constitution have caused trust in institutions and elected representatives to diminish.

Parliament, too, became a site for the ruling African National Congress’ (ANC) own factional battles. We saw this in the way Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete protected Zuma during successive Question Time sessions and during the Nkandla investigation. This created an environment in which the 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 give effect to the founding provisions of the Constitution that call for ‘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, and Parliament has renewed vigour regarding ‘state capture’ in particular. With the unexpected postponement of the State of the Nation address last month, Parliament has not officially opened - but its committee work continues.

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 moving forward. We saw during its handling of the Nkandla matter how weak Parliament was in holding the president to account. At the end of the ad hoc committee’s work, they 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.

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. So far we have heard rather damning evidence specifically in relation to issues of corporate governance at Eskom. In late November, former 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 then member of the public enterprises committee. On the appointments processes at Eskom, Brown shot back during a November 2017 meeting of the committee and said, ‘In conclusion, let me state unequivocally that I do not take instructions from anybody.’ She repeatedly tried to discredit the parliamentary process and described it as not giving those who testify the right of reply. Sweet irony it is that Gordhan now finds himself back as the Minister of Public Enterprises as a result of the recent Cabinet reshuffle. Brown has also since been found to have breached the Parliamentary Code of Ethics.

But whatever the politicians say, the parliamentary inquiry will continue to do its work. More and more information and evidence about malfeasance at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and Eskom will no doubt enter the public domain. This can only be a good thing. Of course, in the commission of inquiry into state capture led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, more will be revealed in order to ensure that the recommendations of former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report are drawn to their logical conclusion.

With the extensive media coverage on corruption and the state capture hearings in Parliament which have had us transfixed, 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 and engaging in the vast amount of information available on corruption in South Africa.

It is then important that civil society take detailed accounts of the allegations and evidence of corruption raised in Parliament and work to ensure that these are not simply 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 our critical challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Eventually Parliament too will have its own state capture report. 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 if its final report on state capture sees the light of day and is a credible account of the evidence presented.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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