[OPINION] Imagine an ANC driven by conscience

Minister of Public Service and Administration Faith Muthambi should, along with Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini, be on some sort of ‘Rogue’s List’ when it comes to ministers who display a careless disregard for process and Parliament. Their boss President Zuma should probably head the list. Therein lies the problem, of course.

Last week Muthambi, already disgraced in her previous portfolio as Minister of Communications, failed to appear before the portfolio committee on public service and administration in her new incarnation.

Quite how Zuma saw Public Service as a demotion is curious. After all, Muthambi is now charged with ensuring that our public service subscribes to constitutional principles and delivers proper services to citizens - often those who are most vulnerable. It says a great deal about the president that he would inflict Muthambi upon such a crucial ministry.

Recently, Muthambi was called to explain allegations of nepotism and corruption leveled against her in relation to travel arrangements and appointments within her ministry. Perhaps predictably, she failed to appear as requested. At that point, ANC MP Makhosi Khoza was the chair of the committee.

Before the meeting started, however, four ANC MPs had written to chief whip Jackson Mthembu objecting to Khoza’s chairing of the committee. They wanted Khoza’s conduct to be ‘addressed’. It was only the ANC’s Nyami Booi who attended. As it turns out, Khoza did not last long and has now been unceremoniously removed from her position as committee chair.

The ANC is seeking to punish Khoza for her outspoken statements against ‘state capture’ and also her comments about the motion of no confidence. It has also indicated its intent to proceed with disciplinary action against Derek Hanekom for tweets in relation to members ‘voting their conscience’.

Needless to say, Muthambi will now feel emboldened to ignore Parliament even further. She has yet to provide any explanation as to why she failed to appear before Parliament. On the day of the meeting Khoza had said, “She did not indicate that she won’t be coming to this meeting. It’s fruitless and wasteful expenditure. You can't come to Cape Town, supposed to attend meeting and don’t pitch up. It’s really tragic that she is not here.”

In terms of the Constitution, Parliament has a direct oversight role over the executive. Its task is to hold members of the executive to account for the exercise of public power. In terms of s56 of the Constitution, Parliament has wide powers to request that anyone (including a minister) appears before it and can even summon that person.

Khoza, therefore, had indicated that she would seek to issue a summons against Muthambi compelling her to appear before the committee.

Following Khoza’s removal, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

How ironic that the ANC has sought to move swiftly against Khoza yet has no appetite to act against the likes of Muthambi? The law is instructive here but then again, it is often adhered to in the breach when it comes to Parliament and MPs’ conduct. It is worth restating the position anyway.

In terms of the Rules of the National Assembly and the Powers Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act 4 of 2004, Muthambi’s failure to appear could well constitute ‘contempt’ of Parliament as defined and should then attract sanctions in terms of s12 of the Act. In addition, the Executive Members’ Ethics Act applies. The Act and the Code of Ethics require that ministers act in ‘good faith and in the interest of good governance’ and not in a manner which is ‘inconsistent with their office’.

Of course, the president should be the one lodging the complaint, but clearly he will not. Muthambi acts with the imprimatur of the president, after all.

In an ideal world and one in which the ANC is driven by conscience, Muthambi and those of her ilk would have been disciplined by party structures and Zuma would have relieved them of their positions. That clearly will not happen as the ANC has lost its ethical compass altogether. Those within the party like Khoza, Hanekom and Vytjie Mentoor have to fear reprisal instead. It is a sad reflection on the party, especially in what is meant to be the ‘Year of OR Tambo’.

But the failure of the ANC to act against the likes of Muthambi and Dlamini has very real consequences for our democracy. When ministers - and the president himself - ignore Parliament, then they are indicating that they are above the law and above scrutiny. This is an untenable position.

As citizens we need to cultivate the habit of demanding accountability despite the fact that we are overwhelmed by stories of corruption on a daily basis. At the moment demanding such accountability is an uphill battle given the ANC’s own factional battles which have, for a while now, been spilling over into the public domain. It is in this environment that civil society organisations monitoring Parliament and its workings are so crucial.

After all, when Parliament fails in its oversight role, it is the poor who suffer most.

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