National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise on Monday told the Zondo commission of inquiry it was regrettable that parliament woke up to the reality of state capture only belatedly, but struggled to explain why the legislature blinked when scandals embroiling ministers and the Gupta family broke.
“As I say, it is really regrettable that parliament woke up when things were now really bad … and for that we must apologise to the South African people,” she said
Asked by evidence leader Alec Freund to explain the legislature’s delay in delving into allegations of rent-seeking widely reported in the media, Modise offered that because of the nature of politics, it could be hard to gauge whether such were true or fabricated.
“In politics sometimes there are games,” she said.
“You are not sure whether there is politicking or there are facts.”
Freund asked whether then speaker Baleka Mbete and chair of chairs Cedric Frolick’s eventual decision to establish an ad hoc committee on state capture was prompted by the release of the Gupta emails.
“When the emails were leaked, it no longer became just probably propaganda or political games, it became real,” replied Modise, who at the time served as chairperson of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP).
“I think what worried us was this was not just maladministration and your usual petty thieving, a new term was creeping in — the state.
“We as parliament thought we must actually wake up and smell the coffee: we can’t leave this to chance.”
What Modise knew, and when
Freund pointed out that this happened in June 2017, while there were serious allegations as early as January and February of the same year.
“Why did we have to wait for the Gupta leaks, because the allegations that were substantiated in the Gupta leaks had been in the public domain for a long, long time by then,” he said.
Freund noted that those who raised the alarm from within the ranks of the ANC included former minister Barbara Hogan and MP Vytjie Mentor, who served as the chairwoman of the portfolio committee on public enterprises. And former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas had gone public with the accusation that the Gupta brothers had offered him bribes and a cabinet position.
“This is not an instance of speculation and rumours. This is your own senior member making an allegation like this, and he was not speaking alone — Minister Hogan spoke out, Ms Mentor spoke out, and others,” Freund said.
“They did this by no later than March of 2016, and what mystifies me is why is this kind of action that we are seeing here, only being taken in June 2017, and why not back in March 2016? Now, I understand you were not then the speaker of the National Assembly and you may say to me, ‘I don’t know’, and I just want to know what you do know.”
Modise replied that she did, in fact, not know. She qualified herself as “an onlooker” at the time because the NCOP and the National Assembly function as distinct chambers.
“It would have been important for the committee chairpersons, unprompted, to have run using the powers that they have to investigate this matter and to put reports in the house,” Modise said.
Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo said he believed Freund was insisting in this vein because the commission was anxious to understand why things unfolded in the way, and at the time, they did.
This would enable it to make recommendations on implementing safeguards against future instances of state capture.
“Maybe if parliament had acted a year earlier or more than that, but at the latest a year earlier, as soon as possible after March 2016; maybe certain things which happened after, which are detrimental to the country, in terms of what the commission has heard, might not have happened,” Zondo said.
‘Without fear or favour’
Modise said parliament has since become far more vigilant.
“One can just say that parliament awoke. Now we know that we must not allow things to fester,” she said. “We are now at a point where we want to know everything, we want to cover ourselves and we want to cover the people.”
Zondo replied: “I am very happy to hear that the attitude is different now and that, in particular, committee chairs and committee members are directed to keep themselves informed of what is in the public domain.”
The deputy chief justice asked Modise about recent testimony from ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe that ANC MPs could never support an opposition motion of no confidence in an errant president.
Modise said she hoped that MPs would feel empowered to follow their conscience without fear or favour.
Mantashe’s answer, however, had referred more to the numerous votes of no confidence that former president Jacob Zuma survived.
The commission in February heard testimony from former ANC MP Makhosi Khoza on how she was sacked as chairwoman of the portfolio committee on public service and administration by then ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu, on the instructions of Mantashe, for defying a three-line whip to support a motion of no confidence in Zuma in 2017.
Modise said she believed MPs owed a duty to those who elected them and to the country at large to put the interests of the public first.
“If there are conflicting interests, you must be faithful to the Republic,” she said.
It was a textbook answer, and stood in total contrast to the response given to Freund in February by Deputy Transport Minister Dikeledi Magadzi as to why she did not support an investigation into state capture, despite being aware of runaway irregular expenditure at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa and media reports that the Gupta brothers were embroiled.
“I am not in parliament as myself; I am representing the African National Congress and that will ensure that each and every time I toe the party line and that is what I did,” Magadzi said.
She added that, with hindsight, she would adopt the same approach today, out of loyalty to the party.
Mantashe takes the stand
Mantashe returned to the witness stand on Monday evening and, like Modise, resisted a suggestion by Freund that parliament needed a portfolio committee to oversee the president of the country.
Both pointed out that the president was not an MP, for a start. Mantashe added that the president’s executive decisions manifested in the actions of the ministers, which already fell under portfolio committees.
“If parliament is strong on oversight of the ministers there is no need for a committee overseeing the president,” he said. “Maybe it is a nice-to-have, but it will have no practical work to do.”
Mantashe reiterated that it would be “out of this world” for the ANC to back or institute a vote of no confidence in its president. The party’s approach was to interact with the president in case of problems, and it did so often, he said.