Publication: Sunday Times Issued: Date: 2001-03-04 Reporter: Carol Paton Editor:

ANC Poodles Obey their Master's Voice

Publication  Sunday Times
Date 2001-03-04

Carol Paton

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It was midday on Wednesday in Parliament and the temperature outside was close to 40 degrees. Inside room S35, it was hotter. MPs in shirtsleeves and ties sat sweating. Journalists and diplomats, crammed between the table and the walls, shifted uncomfortably. The atmosphere was tense and silent: the Standing Committee on Public Accounts was poised to take its first vote ever. 

Across the blistering cobblestones of Parliament Avenue, in an air-conditioned room high in an office tower, another committee was meeting. Chaired by the ANC's Andries Nel, it was racing against the clock to decide what should be done to discipline the Minister of Justice, Penuell Maduna, who some three years earlier had made disparaging comments about the Auditor-General. After a year of dilly-dallying, its deadline could be extended no further. 

At almost the same moment that the ANC members of the public accounts committee raised their hands to vote in support of a motion that would align themselves with their political bosses the Nel committee concluded that it was powerless to act against Maduna. 

And the character of Parliament, then and for the future, was decided in the heat of one moment on a summer's day in Cape Town. 

It was a high noon for Parliament. In both committees, the ANC had made it clear that it would use its majority to defend the executive even if a reasonable interpretation of the facts might stand in its way. In the public accounts committee, the issue goes back to public wrangling over whether Judge Willem Heath's Special Investigating Unit should be called in to investigate the R43-billion arms deal. Last October, the committee had drawn up a report saying that four agencies, including Heath's, should be brought together to find the best combination of skills and resources. 

But ever since the executive, in the form of President Thabo Mbeki and his deputy Jacob Zuma, had stepped into the fray, the ANC members had been under pressure to fall into line. 

On Wednesday, the ANC used its majority to lay the Heath matter to rest. It drew up a motion that said that nowhere had the original report "provided for the definite inclusion" of Heath and voted upon it. It won 9-0. Fair enough. That is the democratic process and the majority must rule. But what if the majority votes on something it believes to be not quite true? 

Only half an hour before the vote, the ANC members of the public accounts committee had put forward another view. They believed, they said, that there was more than one bona fide interpretation of the matter: that it was possible to have thought that Heath was to be included just as it was possible to have thought it otherwise. But after a quick caucus they changed their minds. 

In the Nel committee, the reasonable interpretation of the facts proved once again to be the stumbling block. Maduna could not be disciplined, they decided, because in making his comments about the Auditor-General, he was simply exercising freedom of speech. And, as had been proved in the case of Patricia de Lille, who took the Speaker of Parliament to court and won after she was suspended for making harmful remarks, freedom of speech in Parliament cannot be limited by rules and procedures. So although Maduna had erred, they were therefore without a remedy, they said. 

But the circumstances of the De Lille case and Maduna's are different. Although De Lille made harmful remarks about MPs (she named them as apartheid spies) she did not violate the Constitution. Maduna did, by attacking the Auditor-General, whose office and integrity the Constitution states must be protected. The Public Protector, who conducted the Maduna investigation, made it quite clear that it should be. 

Had Nel and the ANC wanted to, a remedy could easily have been found. A simple motion of censure, which requires no rules or procedures, could have been suggested. In fact, it was - but by the opposition. Their minority report was ruled to have "no status" and was rejected by the committee.

"You can throw it away if you want, I don't care," fumed the DA's chief whip, Douglas Gibson, before leaving the meeting. 

Probably that's just what they did. 

With acknowledgement to Carol Paton and Sunday Times.