/ 23 April 2014

DA seeks extension to Nkandla committee’s lifespan

President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla home as pictured in October 2012.
President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla home as pictured in October 2012.

Parliament is finally set to grapple with the hot potato that is the multimillion-rand upgrades at President Jacob Zuma's private home in Nkandla this week, more than a month since public protector Thuli Madonsela released her report into the matter on March 19.

But the success of this milestone is shrouded in doubt even before the specially constituted Parliament committee holds its first meeting.

Speaker of the National Assembly, Max Sisulu, announced on April 9 he had decided to establish an ad hoc committee to "consider the submissions by the president in response to the public protector's report and make recommendations, where applicable".

Sisulu gave the committee three weeks, until April 30, to complete its work and report back to the House.

While the speaker is responsible for announcing the membership of the committee, the rules of the National Assembly leave it to political parties to deploy members to a parliamentary committee within a period of 10 working days.

The ruling party took full advantage of this courtesy and only announced its seven members on Tuesday, the ninth of the 10-day period.

This move has been seen as stalling for time by the opposition, who claim that the ANC's only interest is to protect Zuma from scrutiny, especially considering the limited time period before the May 7 general elections. 

Parliament is key in this process. It is the body to which both the president and the public protector account, and which appoints and can remove a president and a public protector.

When it announced its members, the ANC downplayed the delay, firstly pointing out that it met the deadline, but then blamed the delay on it being parliamentary recess and elections season.

The party named a mixed bag of MPs: some are known as vocal Zuma supporters but the majority of members have considerable experience in Parliament and are familiar with parliamentary procedure as they either chair their own parliamentary committees or are whips of committees.

The committee will be chaired by National Assembly House chairperson Cedric Frolick, who is known as a stickler for the rules.

Controversially, the ANC also included Buti Manamela, a rising star in the party who last month said Madonsela was driven by the political agenda of the media and of the Democratic Alliance (DA) in her investigation of the Nkandla upgrades.

Manamela told a youth rally in Rustenburg in March that "President Zuma did not ask for security upgrades and renovations. He did not appoint contractors to do the upgrades. He did not unduly benefit from the entire process and therefore cannot take responsibility of the mess that was created by administrators."

Committee members
Other ANC members in the committee are its National Assembly deputy chief whip Doris Dlakude, public service and administration portfolio committee chair Joyce Moloi-Moropa, ANC whip on the communications portfolio committee Faith Muthambi, joint standing committee on intelligence chairperson Cecil Burgess, justice and constitutional development portfolio committee chairperson Luwellyn Landers. 

The latter two were responsible for pushing the Protection of State Information Bill, also known as the secrecy Bill, earlier in this year's parliamentary term.

With growing concerns that the committee will not be able to do a thorough job in the week that is left until the April 30 deadline, the DA has written to Sisulu requesting that he extends the life of the ad hoc committee by five more days to May 5. The party added it would not advocate working on weekends in the interests of time.

The official opposition is also calling for a parliamentary sitting on May 5 or 6, a day or two before the general elections for the house to consider a report of the ad hoc committee.

Parliament's term expires at midnight on May 6.

DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said she was concerned with the quality of work that the special committee would produce, given its tight deadlines.

Mazibuko, alongside James Selfe will represent the DA in the committee. Narend Singh will represent the Inkatha Freedom Party and Corne Mulder, the smaller parties.

The Congress of the People has declined an offer to serve on the committee.

'Huge matter of concern'
"Our ability to do our job effectively is being undermined, I believe, deliberately by the ANC … and that is a huge matter of concern, which is why we are asking for this extension to give us an opportunity to get to as close to that three weeks that the speaker envisioned when he first set this up as possible," Mazibuko told journalists in Parliament, before the ANC announced its deployees.

"We are now in a position where we are forced to take extraordinary measures. It is unusual for Parliament to sit a day or two days before an election.

"It is not ideal, it is disappointing that we are in this position but I can’t see how this committee can do a legitimate service to its mandate if it is essentially squeezing all the work of investigating this matter into less than a week, which could very well happen as a result of the ANC's delays," she said.

It would be interesting to see how Sisulu responds to the DA request for an extension, considering that the committee has not met nor has it drafted a programme.

While Parliament has in the past extended the deadlines of ad hoc committees, following a request from an operating committee, the DA could be accused of jumping the gun in this case.

Mazibuko envisages that the committee would fully explore all its legal powers, including the power to subpoena documents and summon witnesses including Zuma and Madonsela to appear before it.

"We will call for the president to be summoned to the committee, we will insist on it. This matter cannot be discussed independently of him," she said.

But it is unlikely that ANC MPs would agree to opening Zuma up for a grilling by opposition MPs.

It is also not likely that the ANC would agree to a parliamentary sitting literally a day or two before the elections. And if such a sitting would be held, the ANC's majority would not vote for the impeachment of its president, not especially a day before the elections.

Faced with a call for a no-confidence debate on Zuma in November 2012, a month before the party's national conference in Mangaung, the ANC did everything to ensure such a debate did not take place before such a crucial occasion for Zuma.

Chairperson of the DA's parliamentary caucus Wilmot James denies that the election fever has anything to do with the incessant pushing on Nkandla.

"Considering that we’ve been doing this for a number of years and not days, it is not an act of campaign opportunism," he said.

"What it is is a consistent and deliberate effort to exert accountability from a president that has tried to evade it at every turn. And we will do so until the end of this parliamentary term," said James.

Mazibuko added: "We are also fighting for the life of independent institutions that hold the state accountable for their work and the ANC is trying to slither as deviously and as cynically out of accountability as possible by either undermining independent institutions or by preventing them from doing their work.

"They tried to prevent the public protector from doing her work and they are now trying to prevent Parliament from doing its work."