Time for questions

It is hard to know what to make of this week’s Cabinet statement affirming the executive’s duty to answer parliamentary questions, while simultaneously hinting that certain questions are unreasonable and a waste of the government’s time. One would like to think that Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s appointment to probe the matter is a positive development, and that she will come up with proposals to reform and reinvigorate a vital but increasingly moribund parliamentary institution. The fear is that she will merely legitimise ministers’ reluctance to account to Parliament and desire to pick and choose the questions they will answer.

The Cabinet statement refers to “questions that may be vexatious and repetitive, require personal information about employees, and demand such detailed research that they could bog down personnel and prevent them from fulfilling other core functions, particularly to service citizens”. Note the technocratic hint that because it takes time and research, answering MPs’ questions hampers efficient governance. And who decides whether questions are “vexatious and repetitive”? They may be vexatious, from a minister’s standpoint, because they are embarrassing; and repetitive because he or she has not previously given an adequate response. Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula, for example, has taken to stonewalling difficult inquiries about shortages of police personnel and equipment on grounds that they concern “operational” matters.

Our cynicism about the outcome of Mlambo-Ngcuka’s intervention is based on the general erosion of executive accountability to Parliament, on which we have previously commented, and more specifically on the decline of question time, which has become a tedious and sterile affair. The ruling party has steadily chipped away at the institution.

First the exposure of President Thabo Mbeki was reduced — he has appeared just twice in Parliament this year to answer questions. Then the practice of “clustering” questions by broad theme — economics, safety and security and so on — has significantly diminished the appearance of ministers. This year Nqakula, one of our least effective ministers, has had to account for himself on just three occasions. But most pernicious of all has been former ANC chief whip Tony Yengeni’s decision that questions should be allocated to the various parties according to the size of their parliamentary representation, on grounds that the Democratic Alliance was hogging the floor. More than half the questions during question time now are sweetheart inquiries by ANC MPs designed to provide a platform for ministers to extol their own achievements and polish their marble. Their answers can hardly be heard above the drone of collective snoring.

Parliament does not just exist to pass laws — under the Constitution, it has an equally important responsibility to rein in executive power and force the executive to account for its performance. Together with the systematic weakening of the committee system, the decline of question time has undermined Parliament’s oversight role. Mlambo-Ngcuka should be aware that this may suit the Cabinet, but is a deeply damaging to our democracy.

Comrades in business

Can the African National Congress clamp down on the inexorable march of its comrades into business while holding political office? Hidden in the party’s statement last weekend on how it plans to deal with the fall-out between its president, Thabo Mbeki, and his deputy, Jacob Zuma, is a hint that it may at least try.

The party said it was considering guidelines on “the involvement in business of those in office [in government and full time in the ANC]”. It’s about time.

The intersection of business and politics threatens clean government, as the American system so graphically illustrates. Policymaking is corrupted as politicians, with their business interests in mind, begin to make laws or hobble lawmaking.

With mounting numbers of Cabinet members, legislators and ruling party high-ups having interests in the private sector, the threat of moral decay grows. More and more, people are being drawn to public life not as would-be stewards and builders of democracy, but because of the opportunities to feather their nests. A recent Financial Mail article on the state of local government revealed how common it has become for councillors to degenerate into “Mr 10 percenters”, awarding tenders for backhanders. The state tender system has already been tainted by political influence, as highlighted by the Oilgate scandal and Zuma’s fall.

What are the solutions? A ban on active business interests by politicians is the ideal. But that would require paying better salaries, an unlikely development — so many senior ANC leaders will continue to make hay while the sun shines.

A secondary set of checks and balances is possible. A law setting up post-employment restrictions could limit corruption and influence-peddling, while transparent political funding is another essential step. If such a law had been in place, it would not have been quite so easy for the ANC’s favoured oil company, Imvume, to funnel R11-million in state funds to the ruling party.

Finally, the state tender system needs to be far more transparent, while the laws governing the disclosure of politicians’ business interests should be given more muscle.

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