Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2004-03-17 Reporter: Chantelle Benjamin

Passive MPs Failed to Vet Arms Deal



Business Day

Date 2004-03-17


Chantelle Benjamin

Web Link


Oversight role overlooked - Idasa

Parliament failed to challenge some of the more questionable aspects of the arms deal because members of Parliament did not have sufficient understanding of their oversight function, says Judith February of the Institute for Democracy in SA.

She said that without oversight there was effectively no control of policy implementation by the public who elected politicians to represent them, and this gave rise to controversial decisions.

February was speaking yesterday at a Institute of Security Studies conference on countering corruption in SA.

She said members of Parliament did not understand their role of scrutinising the implementation of policy, with the majority of parliamentarians believing it was their role to be supportive of government initiatives.

"The strong party system and close links which MPs have with the executive (make) it difficult and often problematic for MPs to exercise oversight effectively," she said. "It is for this reason that, in practice, oversight is largely left to the opposition."

This lack of understanding led to the row over the handling of the arms deal report by Parliament's standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) and seriously damaged some say irreparably the image of the committee tasked with overseeing state spending.

Scopa was torn apart in 2001 by conflict along party lines over the arms deal with the African National Congress (ANC) largely pitted against committee chairman Inkatha Freedom Party MP Gavin Woods, as well as other minority parties.

The ANC eventually used its majority to have the report on the joint investigation into the arms deal adopted as the official view of the committee.

This decision effectively declared the work of the joint investigating team to be complete, and drew the curtain on further cabinet probes into any of the findings in the report.

Opposition parties opposed the adoption of the report and said the investigative work of the committee was not concluded, but were outvoted.

Woods said they had rejected the report because Scopa's initial report which prompted the investigation by the auditor-general, public protector and the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions into the arms deal identified 29 issues and most of these had not been addressed.

Questions surrounding the enforceability of the offset requirements in a court of law, and about the number of beneficiary companies that were genuinely South African were not answered.

February said Scopa's situation was particularly alarming because the committee's "unique mandate (to oversee expenditure) requires that it be insulated from party politics so that it can withstand moments of political crisis".

MPs could ensure better oversight by using parliamentary question time more efficiently by asking "relevant, succinct questions aimed at eliciting a clear answer on the way in which delivery is taking place in a certain sphere" and by ensuring that the legislation they pass is correctly implemented.

"Committees with better resources are in a better position to verify the information they receive," said February.

"Where resources are scarce, however, committees should draw creatively on civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations ."

With acknowledgements to Chantelle Benjamin and Business Day.