/ 11 August 2008

‘Jury is out on Parliament’

It was the credibility of the parliamentary process, rather than the future of the Scorpions, which generated most heat during last week’s tense public hearings on legislation designed to disband the unit and move some of its personnel to a new directorate of the South African Police Service.

Parliament’s justice and safety and security committees are sitting jointly to hear oral submissions from individuals and civil society organisations on the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) Amendment Bill, which does away with the Scorpions, and the Police Service Amendment Bill, which sets up a new “Directorate of Priority Crime Investigation” (DPCI) to tackle organised crime.

Safety and security committee chairperson Maggie Sotyu told a press conference last week that the dissolution of the Scorpions would go ahead regardless of the volume of written submissions and petitions sent to Parliament opposing the move. It was Parliament’s job, she said, “to implement the policies of the ruling party”.

That gaffe forced justice committee chairperson Yunus Carrim repeatedly on to the defensive as opposition parties and civil society groups suggested that the hearings were an elaborate charade to provide cover for the unconstitutional ramming through of the legislation by the ANC.

“We will give assiduous attention to both these Bills,” he said, adding: “The jury is out on us. If the overwhelming majority of South Africans, not least the voters of the majority party, indicate to us that they are opposed to the Bill, surely we have to listen to that.”

But he stopped short of saying that there was a chance that the Scorpions would be thrown a lifeline. If the legislation faced truly overwhelming opposition, he suggested, ANC committee members would have to take the debate back to party structures.

“Very interesting questions are raised about decisions made by 4 000 delegates at [the ANC’s Polokwane] conference, about a party that has a 70% majority, about Parliament, about democracy. Difficult questions,” he told the committee.

Carrim argued that the mandate given to party members by the Polokwane resolution to scrap the Scorpions was the most credible and democratic way for the party to take policy decisions between elections.

“What more democratic a mandate could we get, in-between five-year elections, than a vote by 4 000 members of the party’s highest decision-making body?

“And how do we manage this in a way that ensures Parliament represents the people as a whole, with meaningful participation in public hearings and doesn’t get reduced to an ANC sub-committee?” he asked the Mail & Guardian. “The ANC certainly doesn’t want Parliament to be reduced to this.”

Carrim also met with think-tanks Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) and the Helen Suzman Foundation to assure them public submissions will be seriously considered.

The row took other forms, too. DA MP Dianne Kohler-Barnard clashed with Sotyu over how many written submissions had been received — Sotyu said 116, Kohler-Barnard said 15 000 — and how many signatures were on petitions organised by Hugh Glenister and the DA in support of the Scorpions.

Carrim again had to act as backstop, promising a thorough audit by committee staff.

African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart asked whether MPs who have been investigated by the Scorpions should be allowed to take decisions about the unit. “It is a clear conflict of interest,” Swart said.

Two safety and security committee members figure prominently among those charged in the Travelgate scam. Jabu Sosibo pleaded guilty to fraud charges last year and is battling to repay debts she owes to travel agency liquidators, while NEC member Nyami Booi is fighting similar charges in the Cape High Court.

Up to 25 other MPs who must ultimately vote on the legislation also paid large fines.

The committee is taking legal advice on this issue.

It is clear, however, that ANC MPs believe it is politically nigh impossible for them to avoid scrapping the unit. Even to be seen expressing doubts on this score, in a week when party president Jacob Zuma was trying to fend off corruption charges in the Pietermaritzburg High Court, would be very risky, one senior MP told the M&G.

They are unlikely to be moved by pleas to retain the Scorpions as an independent force, but are keen to stop flawed legislation establishing the DPCI from being rushed through Parliament.

“We really want people to give us suggestions about the detail of what to do if the legislation goes ahead. There are crucial issues to sort out about how a new unit should work,” said Carrim.

Opponents of legislation face a dilemma: should they concentrate on fighting it or on ensuring that any new body preserves the Scorpions’ “prosecution-led” approach, measure of independence and a corruption-fighting mandate?

The latter would potentially influence any redrafting of the Police Service Amendment Bill. But it would also provide political and constitutional cover for the ANC, which could argue that it had taken the public participation process seriously.

The NPA was among several critics of the legislation that took the latter tack. Special Investigating Unit chief Willie Hofmeyr, treating the demise of the Scorpions as a fait accompli, presented detailed proposals on “how to preserve and give legal effect” to their methods and insisted that any new body should not report to the national police commissioner.

“A level of independence is critical, not just for political cases. Most of the big people [that priority crime investigations focus on] have a lot of money and even if they don’t have influence, they will try to get [it],” he warned.