ANC Poodles Obey their Master's Voice
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
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
Probably that's just what they did.
With acknowledgement to Carol Paton and Sunday Times.