OPINION More questions than answers
There was a time after the ANC conference at Polokwane that Parliament experienced a kind of 'Prague Spring' with Members of Parliament committing themselves to exercising greater oversight over the executive. This came immediately after the Mbeki years which saw Parliament becoming more and more cautious in dealing with the executive.
The arms deal investigation of 2000 saw the executive use a heavy-handed approach to pressure then Speaker Frene Ginwala to curtail the powers of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) when dealing with the arms deal. It led to the shafting of ANC MP Andrew Feinstein as chair of the ANC study group within Scopa and the emasculation of the then chair, Gavin Woods. Scopa never really fully recovered after that because Parliament, as an institution, became more executive-minded.
After Mbeki's recall, the ANC, in robust mood, was seeking greater accountability and there was a sense during those early days of the Zuma presidency that ANC MPs were serious about accountability.
Of course, that was short-lived and our Parliament, with its deeply compromised and conflicted Speaker, ANC chairperson, Baleka Mbete, has probably never suffered from such a crisis of confidence. Ours is an electoral system where the party owns the seat. MPs are therefore far keener to please party bosses than to question ministers who may be senior to them in the party. We saw this during the arms deal investigation in 2000 and nothing much has changed since. The ANC in Parliament has wasted no time in using its majority to push through pieces of legislation like the Protection of State Information Bill and the Nkandla report, virtually ignoring the substantive recommendations set out in the Public Protector's detailed report.
So, when Minister Nathi Nhleko came to Parliament last week to explain the suspension of Hawks boss, Anwa Dramat, one might not have been surprised by the herd mentality of the ANC MPs on the committee. One wonders what happened to Nhleko, the affable, former Chief Whip of the ANC? Here he was defending a decision that a court had declared unlawful, and providing no proper reasons for using the Public Service Act where the Constitutional Court held a suspension was not possible in terms of the SA Police Service Act. Nhleko failed to answer any questions of substance, such as who provides him with such poor legal advice (one might ask that of the executive in general and the president in particular) and whether there was political pressure on him? Strangely enough, the acting head of the Hawks, Benny Ntlemeza, has already allegedly meddled by trying to stop perjury cases against three advocates who withdrew charges against former crime intelligence boss, Richard Mdluli. And so one is drawn to the incontrovertible conclusion that the suspension of Dramat is an attempt to again protect Mdluli who is close to President Zuma.
Nhleko's key argument was that the suspension was an urgent 'matter of human rights' since Dramat was allegedly involved in the illegal rendition of Zimbabweans in 2010. Last year Home Affairs deported a Botswana national to face the death penalty there, making nonsense of Nhleko's logic. The director-general retained his job.
And then, of course, Nhleko did what all obfuscating, insecure politicians do - he played the 'race card'. Clearly those who opposed the suspension believe that a violation of black people's rights is acceptable. Again, Nhleko's argument makes no sense given government's policy on Zimbabwe and the recent appointment of Robert Mugabe himself to head the African Union. Where was South Africa's voice on human rights then?
In addition, given the other blatant human rights abuses within the police, singling out Dramat raises questions about timing and motive. Police Commissioner Phiyega presided over the massacre of 36 workers at Marikana. And we still await executive outrage. Why are police still armed with R5 rifles during community protests? And what is Nhleko doing to root out a culture which saw Andries Tatane shot in cold blood, or which dragged Mido Macia down a road tied to a police vehicle? And apparently he is not as concerned about looting police caught in Soweto last week?
To all these spurious arguments, the ANC MPs nodded eagerly. Nyami Booi, an ANC MP and former chair of the defence committee, was parachuted into the committee to continue the praise singing. He told Nhleko that he was 'on the right course' and said that Constitutional Court judgments need to be 'questioned'. So, presumably Booi and Nhleko believe that if the Constitutional Court judgment doesn't 'fit', it's best ignored because one can always rely on a compliant, weak ANC Parliamentary majority to do one's bidding?
Nhleko would rather play fast and loose with the rule of law because he knows that doing anything else will see him out of favour and out of a job. And the ANC in Parliament seems quite prepared to support him, no matter the cost.
Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).