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More witnesses due in ‘pay back the money’ hearing

Two Cabinet ministers are expected to give evidence to an inquiry investigating whether the behaviour of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs who chanted “pay back the money” to President Jacob Zuma amounted to contempt of Parliament.

Siyabonga Cwele, the minister of telecommunications and postal services, and State Security Minister David Mahlobo are among the six witnesses called by the powers and privileges committee, which is conducting the inquiry.

Cwele and Mahlobo negotiated with EFF MPs who had staged a sit-in at the National Assembly chamber after Speaker Baleka Mbete suspended a question time session to Zuma and cleared the House on August 21.

This followed a stand off between EFF MPs, Mbete and Zuma after Zuma failed to answer a question by EFF leader Julius Malema on when he would pay back the money spent on non-security measures at his private home in Nkandla.

The EFF MPs wouldn’t allow Parliament to continue with its business until Zuma had answered the question to their satisfaction, chanting “pay back the money” as they waited for his response. Parliament has established a disciplinary investigation into their actions as a result.

Initially, the powers and privileges committee called on one witness to give evidence, National Assembly secretary Masibulele Xaso, who was advising Mbete during the August 21 sitting.

Threatening to withdraw
The decision to call more witnesses was taken last Wednesday following six hours of negotiations between the six ANC MPs and five opposition party MPs that sit on the committee.

The opposition MPs had written to the committee’s chairperson Lemias Mashile, raising concerns about the process that was being followed in the inquiry. They were concerned that they had not been involved in drafting a list of possible witnesses and in deciding who they should be.

They were also unhappy that the committee had refused to deal with a submission made by Malema on behalf of the charged EFF MPs, in which he claims that the process would be biased against him and his EFF colleagues.

Opposition parties were threatening to withdraw from the process if their concerns were not addressed. 

The committee announced in a statement on Thursday that it had resolved to call additional witnesses for the hearing following an “about-turn on Tuesday when certain members made a submission in writing to call for witnesses”.

“It should be stated however that the committee had previously agreed on advice that the work of drafting and preferring charges to the 20 members of the National Assembly be left for the initiator and hence the calling of witnesses to lead evidence into those charges will rest with the initiator.”

“The debate was not about the right to call witnesses but about the impact on the integrity and fairness when members who are supposed to rule on the charges get involved in calling witnesses,” said the statement.

Protecting procedural integrity
But an ANC MP who sits on the committee and who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity was more frank about why the ruling party acceded to the opposition’s demand. 

“We listened to them the whole day, we made sure that they can see we can also compromise … and in the end, they also didn’t get Baleka [Mbete] as a witness.”

“They wanted to walk out in the morning, and we got them not to walk out. We got them to come and listen to the charges. It all depended on our conduct as leaders, on how we handle this thing. Do we want to be arrogant? Do we want to be dismissive? Do we want to take the same posturing that has been pronounced by Gwede [Mantashe]? But we behaved totally different from that.”

The MP said they did this to protect the image and integrity of the process and of the ANC.

The opposition MPs wanted Mbete to appear before the committee because they felt her handling of the matter and tough stance on the EFF contributed to the degeneration of the August 21 sitting.

Other senior MPs that have been called in to give evidence on Monday are ANC deputy chief whip Doris Dlakude and Democratic Alliance chief whip John Steenhuisen. The National Assembly’s sergeant-at-arms Regina Mohlomi and sectional head of information and communications technology Rufus Poliah will also be called.

Mashile told the M&G on Sunday that he was hoping to conclude with the witnesses on Monday so that the committee could get to the end of the process.

“We are resuming tomorrow [Monday] to hear from the witnesses that we have called. They have been invited to come.”

Mashile said he would find out on Monday morning whether the requested witnesses would be attending or not.

The committee is hoping that the witnesses will fill in the gaps in the evidence that has already been led, and will answer about call the roles they played on August 21.

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