Political Watch

The price of protecting the president

Judith February
Judith February.jpg

If the African National Congress (ANC) had its way, it will be the bureaucrats and contractors who will pay the ultimate price for the Nkandla saga. Again, ‘anyone but Zuma’.

The week before last saw an increasingly defensive ANC seek to protect President Jacob Zuma from appearing before the Parliamentary ad hoc committee on the Nkandla controversy.

It ended in the opposition parties walking out and the ANC’s six members of Parliament (MPs) left to deal with the matter among themselves. What the legitimacy of the process will now be remains to be seen. The ad hoc committee might be quorate, but it surely defeats the spirit of the rules and the constitution to have only the ANC represented on the committee investigating the maladministration and waste that Nkandla now represents.

The opposition’s valiant and well-argued attempts to persuade the ANC to call President Zuma before Parliament fell on deaf ears. Also at issue was whether the Public Protector’s report has primacy, and whether her recommendations had to be implemented.

The ANC is seeking equivalence between the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) report, the inter-ministerial report and the Public Protector’s report. Clearly that must be wrong, since only the Public Protector’s Office enjoys the complete independence and constitutional protection that is afforded to it.

Freedom Front Plus MP, the veteran Corné Mulder, gave a brilliant exposition of the constitutional values and legislation in this regard – as did the Democratic Alliance’s Mmusi Maimane and the African Christian Democratic Party’s steady Steve Swart.

Julius Malema also warned of the consequences of the ANC’s bullying use of its majority. But despite the intelligent efforts by the opposition, the ANC was determined to be disingenuous and do what they had come to the committee to do: protect the president’s actions from scrutiny.

Opposition MPs rightly said that they could not be part of such a farcical process and walked out. It left Chair Cedric Frolick in a difficult position, but Frolick, no doubt compliant, knows the job he has to do for the executive. And so again, the ANC MPs will put the interests of an individual before the country and the constitution.

What is happening at Parliament – with the opposition working together strategically and creating a more interesting dynamic to their oversight of the executive – clearly has the ANC rattled.

How else does one explain the three-line whip in place during the recent motion of no confidence debate against speaker Baleka Mbete, with a host of cabinet ministers in attendance and even ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe in the gallery?
Parliament even made the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) agenda last weekend. What resulted, though, was an ANC statement that is as absurd as it is dangerous.

The statement cautioned against the trend of exposing the president and deputy president to ‘humiliation’. In addition, it cautioned against ‘continuing this trend of negatively exposing the Head of State to disrespect...’ One might argue that Zuma has done a decent enough job of bringing the Office of the Presidency into disrepute without any help.

This is, after all, someone who has dragged virtually every democratic institution through turmoil, using public money in order to protect himself from the 700-odd charges of corruption he may face as a result of the arms deal. Presumably referring to the disarray into which the no-confidence motion descended, Mantashe went on to say that, “Even after this unbecoming conduct, the president and the deputy president commit to be accountable to Parliament” and that Zuma and [Cyril] Rampahosa would engage South Africans on “various platforms.”

This rather pointed line seems to intimate that Zuma and Ramaphosa have a choice about accounting to Parliament. Sadly, for Mantashe, that is not the way a constitutional democracy works.

He is right of course to say that all parties must adhere to the Rules of the House. In a democracy that must be a non-negotiable.

The statement also goes on to question those who wish to amend the constitution “by stealth” by removing the speaker. According to the NEC, the speaker has been duly appointed in terms of the constitution and “political analysts” are “intellectually poisoning” society by commenting on the motion of no confidence.

Curiously, the ANC has not applied its mind to section 52 of the constitution, which says the National Assembly may remove the speaker or deputy speaker by a majority resolution. The opposition was perfectly within its rights to bring a motion of no confidence in the speaker: it was hardly done by stealth.

The statement clearly reveals the ANC’s defensiveness and strategic inability to deal with opposition politics that threatens its support base. So, despite the opposition losing last week’s “motion of no confidence” debate, their argument remains a valid one – even more so in light of the recent NEC statement.

The argument in essence is that Speaker Baleka Mbete is incapable of presiding over the debates and other procedural matters in the House given her very senior, active position within the ruling ANC as chairperson of the party.

It has been argued that she is incapable of displaying independence given her position within the ANC. In a sense, asking Mbete to balance this conflict of interest is a near impossible task – also given her own personal ambition for the future, which might not have been tempered as yet.

The “motion of no confidence” debate unfortunately descended into chaos quite quickly. All’s the pity that it was mostly ANC MPs who lowered the tone of the debate so unfortunately, with Bertha Mabe shouting an expletive as she walked away from the podium.

But the day’s greatest vitriol came from Minister of Sport and Recreation, Fikile Mbalula. His speech – comparing the opposition to ‘neo-liberal fascists’ – was truly a case of being unable to win the argument, and therefore taking the debate to the lowest common denominator by insult and slur.

Mbete survived the day but Bantu Holomisa, that experienced trooper, has also said his party would be referring Mbete’s involvement in Goldfields to the ethics committee. It jogged the memory of the finding by a New York law firm that a R25-million share allocation to Mbete by Goldfields in the 2010 empowerment deal had constituted bribery.

This will be uncomfortable for the ruling party, and will surely increase pressure on Mbete as well as scrutiny on her implementation of the rules.

It was Musi Maimane who made the important point that the motion of no confidence was ‘not personal’. At its heart, this motion was about whether our Parliament can shift from being an executive-minded cheerleader for the ruling party to one that represents all South Africans with the robustness that the constitution demands.

And so, even on the ad hoc committee on Nkandla, the ANC can deliberate without the opposition, but it does so with a legitimacy that is decreasing and looks increasingly like a party that has run out of ideas.

                                                                                                                            by Judith February

(This article was first published on the website of the Institute of Security Studies, where Judith February is Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division)

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