/ 3 July 2019

New Scopa chair wants parly watchdog to have more ‘bite’

“People call us the watchdog of Parliament. I want us to be known as not just a dog that watches
“People call us the watchdog of Parliament. I want us to be known as not just a dog that watches, but a dog that bites,” newly appointed Scopa chairperson, Mkhuleko Hlengwa says. (David Harrison/M&G)

Mkhuleko Hlengwa, the new chairperson of Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts (Scopa), says he wants the body to have more power to bring wayward government entities and officials into line.

Hlengwa of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), was this week voted in as the chairperson of the legislature’s anti-corruption committee. The ANC offered the position to the IFP, keeping up the tradition that the Scopa chairpersonship be held by an opposition member of Parliament.

“People call us the watchdog of Parliament. I want us to be known as not just a dog that watches, but a dog that bites,” Hlengwa said in an interview following his first committee this week.

The 32-year-old MP is already a veteran on the Scopa committee, having served on it for five years in the last parliament.

He’s known as a no-nonsense interrogator, often having even senior government cabinet ministers shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

While he says he often doesn’t enjoy an inquisitorial approach, it is often necessary. “I don’t take joy in the tension. But I am content in doing the job. I will not back down. I’m not afraid.”

To do that, Hlengwa says Scopa needs more teeth. It has no prosecutorial powers, and can only recommend police investigate cases of alleged illegality. Also it makes recommendations to the legislature on how to deal with alleged wrongdoing by its members.

But, Hlengwa says this could change over the next five years if he has his way.

Already, bodies like the Auditor General (AG) have been given more powers to hold government entities accountable.

The Public Audit Amendment Act, signed into law last year by President Cyril Ramaphosa, now gives the AG powers to hold people who serve on boards of state-owned companies, or financial officers of governmental departments, personally responsible for the misappropriation of public money.

They can also now be issued with a debt certificate, meaning they could be forced to repay the money from their own pocket.

Hlengwa says: “We are going to ensure that the new powers given to the Auditor General to act [against malfeasance] are enforced. The AG is our ally in this fight. We are looking at the possibility of Private Members Bills, or Committee Bills and some changes to legislation [to give Scopa more bite].”

One of the first government entities to be called will be the National Prosecuting Authority, to ask for an update on the progress of investigations and prosecutions when it comes to state capture, he says.

“We have to have a stern meeting with the National Prosecuting Authority. There are serious shortcomings. There are a lot of outstanding cases and that does not sit well with me. Yes, we are coming from an abnormal era where we have to unravel the web of state capture. But we need people to walk the plank.”

The new chairperson wants particular focus on the state of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the impact of state capture. The scale of that capture is becoming more and more evident during ongoing testimony at the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture — chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.

“SOEs are problem children. And they need the full might of Scopa exerted on them. We need to call out these things. There’s this thing of walking on eggshells, we need to call out Person A and say, ‘You were wrong.’ My previous five years in Scopa, and seven in total at Parliament has given me the perspective to say there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Hlengwa understands the risks of serving as Scopa chair, a position offered at the behest of the majority party in the National Assembly. But he says he will not be controlled by any party other than his own.

“We won’t be an extension of the ANC, we are not a lackey of the ANC, and anyone who thinks that doesn’t know the IFP… This is a principled acceptance on our part and I am certainly not a lackey and I won’t kowtow to things that are outside the law. “

He denies that the IFP was offered the Scopa position in exchange for backing the ANC in metro’s currently governed by the Democratic Alliance, and support during the next local government election. “There’s no agreement with this position. There’s no trade offs. We have accepted the position of Scopa because we understand what the ANC was trying to do of keeping the tradition (offering Scopa to opposition).”