[OPINION] Accountability in a time of uncertain political winds

When Pravin Gordhan appeared before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) this week to try to explain the Sassa matter, it was a lengthy session of uneven quality. After all, as Gordhan was at pains to point out, the task of National Treasury was to ensure that procurement was in line with the Public Finance Management Act and other procurement rules. How we got into this situation needs to be laid squarely at the door of Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini and that of her boss President Zuma who has allowed the matter to continue to crisis point.

Be that as it may, the accountability that was being extracted in public before Scopa is crucial and is one of a series of hearings and meetings in the last months where Parliament sought to exercise its oversight role. It has played a patchy role during the Zuma years, to say the least. But there are glimmers of hope.

The recent parliamentary inquiry into the SABC exposed the public broadcaster for its flouting of process, the board for its incompetence and the Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi for turning a conveniently blind eye to the dysfunction.

The report compiled by the ad hoc committee, chaired by ANC MP Vincent Smith, has now recommended that Muthambi be fired. Muthambi, in turn, has declared herself ‘ambushed’ by the committee and is considering legal action.

Throughout the SABC inquiry, we observed a parliamentary ad hoc committee that was prepared, asked probing questions and expected unambiguous answers. As chair, Smith did an admirable job, as did the MPs across party lines. Where were these incisive questions all these years, one wanted to ask? It seemed that Parliament was finding its voice again and it was most welcome.

Meanwhile, in the transport portfolio committee there are rumblings of an investigation into the recent wholesale firing of the Prasa board by Transport Minister Dipuo Peters.

Of course, the appearance before Parliament last week by Dlamini yielded very little, with the minister arriving 20 minutes late, to add insult to injury.

Where has Parliament been since the Constitutional Court declared the CPS contract invalid in 2014, one wonders?

Even the SABC inquiry, productive and constructive as it was, seemed to be too little, too late. But ever since the arms deal created a spot of bother for the ANC MPs oversight of the executive way back in 2000, Parliament’s constitutional role has been fraught. It’s a fine balancing act between MPs holding the executive to account while simultaneously trying to protect their seat and their position.

Parliament’s mandate comes directly from the Constitution and ideally one would want a more robust relationship between the legislature and the executive. Section 55 of the Constitution sets out clearly Parliament’s oversight role. It states that, ‘the National Assembly must provide for mechanisms

(a) to ensure that all executive organs of state in the national sphere of government are accountable to it; and

(b) to maintain oversight of –

(i) the exercise of national executive authority, including the implementation of legislation;

(ii) any organ of state.

There was a time after the ANC conference at Polokwane in 2007 that Parliament experienced a kind of ‘Prague Spring’ with MPs committing themselves to exercising greater oversight over the executive. This came immediately after the Mbeki years that saw Parliament becoming more and more cautious in dealing with the executive. The arms deal investigation of 2000 saw this mandate directly challenged. Then the executive used a heavy-handed approach to pressure then Speaker Frene Ginwala to curtail the powers of Scopa during the investigation.

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. It created a partisan fault-line within Scopa and the committee has never really fully recovered after that as ANC MPs specifically chastened by executive heavy-handedness during the arms deal themselves then became more executive-minded.

Of course, the ‘Prague Spring’ soon turned into a ‘Winter of Discontent’ in that it 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.

Ironically, Vincent Smith was one of those MPs who during the parliamentary investigation into the arms deal in 2000 replaced fellow ANC MP Feinstein as chair of the Scopa study group. Clearly Smith was then viewed as more pliable and he did the job for the executive back in 2000. One cannot help but think that Smith himself was coming full circle as chair of the SABC inquiry and perhaps even seeking to redeem himself? Either way, he did a sterling job as chair of that inquiry.

The political winds are uncertain right now. The signs from the ANC in Parliament are conflicting. Jackson Mthembu has sought a more robust approach to overseeing executive action in recent months. As Zuma’s power wanes ahead of a bitter ANC leadership contest later this year, there are greater openings to hold the executive to account. But, since it is unclear which ‘faction’ might win out, ANC MPs will hedge their bets.

In this environment anything is possible and competing and contradictory outcomes will no doubt be forthcoming as the ANC in Parliament wrestles with its role and the increasing lack of accountability and transparency which the Zuma government displays.

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