Parliament’s portfolio committee on defence on Wednesday laid down arms in its battle to force Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu to submit reports on service conditions in the military, before processing new legislation.
The move came a day after the African National Congress (ANC) gave its full support to Sisulu and cautioned committee chairperson Nyami Booi that his ultimatum to her to release the report within 30 days bordered on “ill-discipline”.
On Wednesday, Booi began the meeting by reading a letter from Speaker Max Sisulu — the minister’s brother — chastising the committee. He won the support of all parties, except the Democratic Alliance, to bury the hatchet and resume work on the Defence Amendment Bill.
“The majority of members feel that we should go ahead with the Bill itself. So that concludes the matter at this particular moment.”
Booi — who earlier seemed to have some party support for taking on Sisulu — said he would draft a programme to process the Bill, and possibly convene the committee during the upcoming parliamentary recess to expedite the matter.
He had opened the meeting by reading the letter in which the speaker expressed the view that it was “incorrect” for a parliamentary committee to refuse to process a Bill.
If MPs wanted to follow this unprecedented route, Sisulu warned, they would be obliged to table a committee report to Parliament explaining their stance.
He made clear he accepted the defence minister’s argument that the long-awaited reports from the Interim National Defence Force Service Commission on soldiers’ service conditions had no bearing on the Bill.
ANC members of the committee said they did not want to be drawn into conflict with the speaker, and withdrew their earlier objections that they needed input from the reports on establishing a permanent service commission for the military — which is the very aim of the Bill.
“There is no link between the Bill and the report. Let’s proceed with the Bill,” said Mokabe Maziya.
Fellow ANC member Mankwana Mohale said: “I’m singing the same song. Why will the minister lie? We believe that in the report there is no impact on the Bill, so let’s continue with the Bill.”
‘We are legislating blind’
The Freedom Front Plus’s Pieter Groenewald also called for work on the Bill to proceed, because a delay would prejudice members of the military struggling with poor service conditions.
The PAC’s Letlapa Mphahlele warned against continuing the “catfight” over the reports.
DA defence spokesperson David Maynier asked that his objections be recorded.
“I would not have thought that surrender came so easily to this committee. I believe that we ought not to proceed with the Bill until we receive the interim reports … we need to act in the best interests of the SANDF. But the question before us is what problem are we trying to solve?
“The fact of the matter is that this committee has never received a briefing on the service condition problem … We are legislating blind.”
He added that the committee was faced with an accountability crisis on the part of Sisulu. “The minister of defence and military veterans is not accountable to Parliament.”
He was interrupted by Booi, who warned: “Let’s not get all excited.”
The bruising battle between Sisulu and the committee in recent months raised questions on the separation of power between the legislature and the executive.
Sisulu has insisted all along that she would only release the commission’s final findings, and only once these had gone to Cabinet. But pressure to release the reports grew after one was leaked to the press, painting a dire picture of army conditions and morale.
Faced with accusations of a cover-up, Sisulu fought back on every front, securing legal opinion in her favour and the support of Cabinet, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, her party and the chairperson of the interim commission, Judge Lebotsang Bosielo.
The minister has also fallen foul of Parliament’s public accounts committee (Scopa) for failing to facilitate accounting on the department’s annual reports. — Sapa