Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2001-03-02 Reporter: Editor:

All Power to the Top

Publication  Business Day
Date 2001-03-02
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EVENTS in two parliamenary committees this week underscored the topheaviness of SA's system of government and the weakness of institutions designed to counterbalance executive power.

The "Maduna committee" was set up in response to Public Protector Selby Baqwa's recommendation that Parliament censure Justice Minister Penuell Maduna for his baseless attack on the constitutionally protected office of the auditor-general.

The African National Congress majority on the committee voted to do nothing.

In the public accounts committee the ANC again overrode minority party objections in finding that Parliament had not asked for the Heath unit's involvement in the arms deal inquiry. Significantly, committee chairman Gavin Woods abstained.

The Maduna matter underscores the toothlessness of Parliament and the public protector as brakes on government. Asked to enforce respect for one constitutionally protected institution, ANC MPs brushed aside another, the public protector himself. Instead of using the legal loophole that the constitution specifies no sanctions, they could have accepted the minority view that the speaker publicly reprimand Maduna. Instead they shielded a minister who opened his mouth, put his foot in it and then insisted at great public expense that this was where his foot belonged. It may be remembered that he spent millions in lawyers' fees defending himself.

The ANC's enthusiasm for Baqwa seems to wax and wane according to the circumstances. It also ignored his recommendation that Mpumalanga premier Ndaweni Mahlangu be censured for violating the spirit of the constitution. At the same time Maduna pronounced Baqwa's office, among others, quite capable of carrying forward the arms inquiry without the Heath unit.

ANC members of the public accounts committee also seem to have been motivated by the desire to swing Parliament behind the executive. The committee was split on party lines for the first time, posing the threat that, in future, it will be less an impartial custodian of the public purse than the tool of party bosses.

The Democratic Alliance, which walked out of the meeting, bears a measure of blame for this. It drafted party heavyweights into the committee at a politically charged moment, when the Heath furore was at its height. One of them, Nigel Bruce, said he saw nothing wrong with politicising the committee's work.

Democracy works on the majority principle and the ANC has done nothing illegal by enforcing it. The damage is more subtle. The question is whether, by their actions, ANC parliamentary committee members have promoted accountable rule.  

With acknowledgement to Business Day.