Parliament did not have the time, resources or capacity to investigate the early “noise” and “rumours” about the coordinated and wholesale looting of South Africa’s public coffers, Baleka Mbete told the state capture commission on Tuesday night.
The former National Assembly speaker was appearing before Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo and his eponymous inquiry to testify about parliamentary oversight, or lack thereof, during the administration of former president Jacob Zuma.
Mbete and her parliamentary peers have been criticised for not sooner initiating investigations into allegations of state capture, and the alleged role that Zuma, his patronage network and the infamous Gupta brothers played therein.
She was still the National Assembly speaker when the commission started in 2018.
“There was a lot of noise [about state capture] in the fifth term that was scattered among portfolio [committees],” Mbete offered early in the sitting.
Evidence leader Alec Freund later put it to her that there was “overwhelming evidence” and “enormous public concern” by at least March 2016 about allegations of state capture and corruption, and yet “not one portfolio committee saw fit to investigate the allegations”.
“MPs were very busy,” responded Mbete, “although I wouldn’t be able to say with what. But it cannot be said they were sitting around.
“There came a time at a certain point where in fact those issues – you are right, in 2016, we were hearing noises and seeing reports, hearing rumours. At that time, when individual public representatives are hearing these matters, they are not sitting around idly. So when you say they didn’t go around and do oversight, maybe sitting here where we are, with hindsight, we are better off than those MPs were.
“Some of those issues started receiving attention portfolio by portfolio. I am seeking to correct a [narrative] that when MPs had all the knowledge and power, they didn’t do anything. Probably they didn’t know as much as we do now,” she offered.
Prior to March 2016, it had been alleged that former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas was offered a hefty bribe — later revealed to be R600-million — by Ajay Gupta in 2015, as well as the post of finance minister, providing he swung business the way of the Guptas.
That meeting was allegedly set up by Zuma’s son, Duduzane, and controversial 1999 arms deal middleman Fana Hlongwane.
On 16 March 2016, Jonas released a statement in his official capacity confirming the alleged bribe, although he did not mention the amount.
In September 2016, the ANC voted against a Democratic Alliance motion that an ad hoc committee be established to investigate rampant allegations and reports of state capture, including those made by long-time ANC member Jonas.
The following month, Thuli Madonsela, then the public protector, released her damning State of Capture report, which contained the allegations made by Jonas, among others.
Mbete told Freund that there had been no need to establish an ad hoc committee to investigate the allegations.
“When on the rare occasion there is a need to create an ad hoc committee, it was done. You don’t just create an ad hoc committee because someone thinks it is the best way. Why can’t we just use an established committee?
“Taking people away from their portfolio committees adds to the workload of MPs. MPs work hard, they have a lot to do.”
Zondo asked if there would be a challenge to establishing an ad hoc committee if the majority party did not want one.
“That’s not a major problem in parliament,” said Mbete. “I hear a lot of noises being made in this commission, but there is no issue that is not processed by whips, and it is among the whips that if you want to really process something to sufficient consensus, the whippery are the engine …”
Seeking clarity, Zondo asked: “So you say the difficulty in that regard is not big, or there is no difficulty?”
“There is no difficulty,” replied Mbete.
She added there was “no magic” in establishing an ad hoc committee as MPs were simply being pulled from other committees.
Establishing an ad hoc committee should only be done in situations where it was “absolutely unavoidable that you take people from their jobs for which they barely have enough time and resources”.
Mbete used an incident that took place early in her parliamentary career to try to justify why every item or allegation that came her way could not be investigated.
She said that at that time, a document was slid under her office door about the arms deal, but it had no signature.
“I applied my mind for hours – and I must now take this dramatic document and say parliament must take it? On what basis? Who was the author? I would do the same thing again.
“This document was a lot of rumour, drama, very concerning, but it had no author. The person who wrote it must come out and tell me about it. The fact someone tells us something, does [not make it valid as] we have other headaches and [that will] add to it.”
She gave no further information about the contents of the unsigned document.
It was only on 15 June 2017 that house chairperson of committees Cedrick Frolick wrote to the heads of the portfolio committees on transport, public enterprises, home affairs and mineral resources to investigate the allegations of state capture, which had been revealed two weeks earlier when the “Gupta leaks” started being published.