/ 10 March 2015

Zuma’s first question session for 2015 to be ‘robust’

President Jacob Zuma during the State of the Nation Address 2015.
President Jacob Zuma during the State of the Nation Address 2015.

With Nkandla hanging over his head and the issue of the incomplete sessions from last year still to be finalised, President Jacob Zuma is expected to face a robust interaction with members of Parliament when he appears for an oral question session tomorrow.

And, according to analysts, dealing with the question head on and providing solutions, such as making a symbolic payment for some of the unnecessary upgrades and establishing a joint parliamentary committee to avoid future abuse, would go a long way as a goodwill gesture to the country – instead of avoiding the issue totally.

The president will appear in Parliament for the first of four oral questions sessions of the year and is expected to answer only six questions, with four follow ups each.

He will not be dealing with questions from his August 21 appearance, which was interrupted when Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs chanted “pay back the money”.

The MPs were referring to public protector Thuli Madonsela’s Nkandla report, which suggested that the president should repay some of the money used to upgrade his home in KwaZulu-Natal.

The question again raised its head during the president’s State of the Nation address last month, when EFF MPs interrupted the proceedings and asked when the president would “pay back the money”, which led to the EFF caucus being violently ejected from the chamber.

Nkandla not mentioned
Debating the State of the Nation address the following week, EFF leader Julius Malema stuck to the topics at hand and promised that they would make the president answer about Nkandla when he appeared for oral questions on Wednesday.

“We are here to debate the State of the Nation address, taking note of the fact that when it was presented, we were not in here because the Speaker ordered police to forcibly remove and assault us for asking a simple question of ‘when are you, Mr President, going to pay back the money?’. There is no doubt that you unduly benefitted from the construction of your private residence in Nkandla, and in our absence from this Parliament, you never said anything about the fact that you unduly benefitted, and must pay back the money. That is a question for another day and you will answer that question on a different date.”

Nkandla is not mentioned at all in the six questions expected to be asked by the different parties in Parliament tomorrow.

Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni said that as the chief executive of the country, the president could start by acknowledging that something wrong happened with regard to the upgrade of his homestead.

“He could start by saying he has seen all the reports and something is wrong. ‘I may not have been involved and may not have interested myself in the nitty-gritties, but with the help of hindsight I think this was a mistake because, as the chief executive of the country, when something wrong happens, irrespective of who has initiated it, I have to take final responsibility’, he could say.”

Zuma has painted himself into a corner
He said Zuma could take ownership of the issue, especially about the time it has taken away from the real business of the country and the paralysis it had caused in Parliament and the public.

“He could start a joint parliamentary committee to look into new laws, which will look at how to avoid any other potential abuse for future presidents in terms of upgrades. That would send a good positive gesture. He could make a symbolic payment for things he would continue to enjoy long after his term has ended, like the kraal and the swimming pool. It would not be an admission of guilt, but to send a signal to all citizens that we ought to take responsibility. And thank South Africans for being patient during the saga.”

Another political analyst, Daniel Silke, said the president could use the question session to protect his legacy by dealing with the Nkandla matter because it was what he will always be known for.

“He is going to find it extremely difficult to avoid what is perhaps a defining issue of his presidency. The Nkandla issue is the one he will be best known for. But it might be difficult for him as he has painted himself into a corner by rubbishing the public protector’s report on the matter. If he was really bold, he could acknowledge, and I suspect that he will, that errors were made in terms of the appropriation of the cash, but he will not take personal blame at all.”

Many unanswered questions
Last month, the president sent written replies to cover the outstanding August 21 2014 oral questions, which were not answered after the disruption to Parliament. Last week it was proposed that the president have three days to answer oral questions for the remainder of the year. The dates are June 18, August 6 and November 19.

The Democratic Alliance has raised concerns about the fact that the presidency has not given an extra date to compensate for the interrupted question session, or the session the president missed during the last term of 2014.

DA chief whip John Steenhuisen said he expected the session to be robust and for there to be problems because there were still unanswered questions from the last session, even though the presidency has disputed this.

“The president has not come back for the end of year session, and there were three questions that were unanswered.

“So it’s actually 12 questions that were not answered if you count the follow-ups from last year.

“It is not right. They should have added an hour upfront on Wednesday’s session to first deal with those questions then go into the session for this term.”

He said he believed this would cause problems in tomorrow’s session, which starts at 3pm.

“We believe … there will be problems in the house on Wednesday because people don’t feel that the president has met his obligations in terms of answering questions and being held accountable in the house. So he might be in for a rough ride on Wednesday in terms of the questions he might be asked and the manner in which it might be dealt with in the house.

We want answers now
“But that’s what happens when one disrespects Parliament. You can’t disrespect Parliament [and] then come and expect it to simply bow before you. It is going to be very robust.”

Although the president is expected to answer only six questions and four supplementary follow-up questions on each question, EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi told the SABC earlier this month that the party would ask about Nkandla when Zuma appeared in Parliament again.

Ndlozi said the president could not dictate to Parliament what questions to ask.

“We want an answer. We want a date and time, a commitment that ‘I [Zuma] recognise that there was an undue spending and an undue benefit as a result and therefore I’m undertaking to pay back the money’.

“We are going to ask it. That is the platform we have. We are going to say, ‘no, no, no, President, when are you going to pay back the money?’ All South Africans, even members of the ANC, want to know when he’s going to pay back the money,” he was quoted as saying.