The captured Parliament: how MPs let looters get away with it

Two OUTA documents detail how a supine Parliament failed to challenge state capture culprits effectively, and how the current parliamentary oversight of the Executive remains weak

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17/11/2020 06:44:24

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The captured Parliament: how MPs let looters get away with it

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) has produced two documents on Parliament: an affidavit on how a captured Parliament effectively condoned state capture by failing to address it as it happened, and a report assessing the current modus operandi in Parliament which finds serious underperformance.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The reports show that Parliament’s own rules allow it to take no action on state capture and maladministration in general, and that Members of Parliament (MPs) used this impunity to do nothing.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    OUTA is considering legal options on challenging the rules which allow Parliament to decide not to take actions on matters of such significance.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    OUTA is also engaging with the presiding officers of Parliament to spark internal motions that should lead to improved operations and participation.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Document 1: The affidavit on the captured Parliament

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    MPs are responsible for holding government officials and Ministers to account. But, instead of defending South Africans against looters, Parliament has become a haven for those implicated in state capture – offering lucrative jobs for, and failing to act against, implicated individuals.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    This affidavit was written by Matt Johnston, OUTA’s Parliamentary Engagement Manager, and has been submitted to the Zondo Commission on State Capture.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    “The lack of public trust in Parliament as an institution for the people is partially due to the widely held view that it is ineffective, indecorous, and symbolic, rather than practically willing and able to assure the accountability and integrity of public servants,” says Johnston in the affidavit.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Johnston details how the rules that govern MPs are open-ended enough to empower the elected officials to take action at their discretion, or to do nothing at all, with no real consequence either way. OUTA is therefore recommending that the rules be reviewed.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    “Members of Parliament are free to act in the immense zone of the ‘permissible but not required’ without constitutional constraint. The rules of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces [the two Houses of Parliament] do not satisfy the constitutional provision that states they must ensure mechanisms that effect accountability and oversight of the Executive. Political interests and biases in the interpretation and application of these discretionary rules prevent tangible consequences resulting from them,” he says in the affidavit.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    “An institutional culture has developed in Parliament where committees were eager to absolve themselves of any oversight and accountability duty – even when the public outcry and media exposés made it politically unviable for Parliament to ignore issues entirely. Committee Chairpersons were unable to assert themselves over members of the Cabinet who outrank them in the political party they serve. High-ranking employees of major state-owned entities did not consider themselves to be truly accountable to Members of Parliament either. They instead either mocked or attacked Parliament’s authority and would often give notice of absence at the last moment,” says Johnston.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    By way of example, in October 2017 OUTA lodged complaints with Parliament about the actions of former Ministers Faith Muthambi and Mosebenzi Zwane, both alleged to have abused their offices to illegally help to the Gupta family. However, three years later, the Joint Committee on Ethics and Members’ Interests has provided no substantive response and appears to have done nothing. Instead, while they are no longer Ministers, both remain in Parliament and hold senior positions at the taxpayers’ expense.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Document 2: The report on the current Parliament, which remains weak

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    This report is on the work of the 6th Parliament, which took office after the May 2019 elections, and is called “MPs asleep at the wheel”.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    This Parliament has the responsibility of cleaning up from the last era, plus ensuring that the new executive is held to account. However, OUTA has found the oversight by the 6th Parliament to be weak and inadequate.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    This report is OUTA’s second annual assessment of Parliament’s oversight, and was written by Liz McDaid, OUTA’s Parliamentary Advisor. This report has been delivered to Parliament. OUTA hopes to engage with Parliament on this to find collaborative solutions.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    This report emphasises that public participation is a cornerstone of good governance, and how Parliament largely pays lip service to this. Parliament’s own public participation policy was passed in 2018 but is not implemented. That policy calls for the public to be encouraged to provide verification of the performance of government departments – for example, confirm that schools have indeed been built.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    “People are not getting the delivery they are entitled to, because Parliament does not ensure that the executive does its work,” says McDaid.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    During the 6th Parliament, portfolio committees assessed by OUTA were found to be using significantly less external (non-government) sources than previously. This means that Members of Parliament are relying on the very departments that they hold to account for the information on which that oversight is based. It is extremely unlikely that departments would present their weaker sides to Parliament, and the opportunity to strengthen oversight through the involvement of civil society inputs is lost. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    More information

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Matt Johnston’s affidavit on the capture of Parliament has been sent to the State Capture Commission and is not being released. However, an overview of this report is here.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                    A soundclip with comment from Johnston is here.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Liz McDaid’s report, “MPs asleep at the wheel”, on the first year of the 6th Parliament is here and the executive summary of this report is here.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                    A soundclip with comment from McDaid is here.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Johnston and McDaid discussed these reports on OUTA Hour, OUTA’s weekly online broadcast, on 11 November. The link is here.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Picture: Flickr/GovernmentZA

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    OUTA is a proudly South African civil action organisation, that is purely crowd funded. Our work is supported by ordinary citizens who are passionate about holding government accountable and ensuring our taxes are used to the benefit of all South Africans.