Parliamentary questions


The written answers to parliamentary questions are sometimes a source of information but but seldom cause for a good laugh.

Thanks then to Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu who provides much of the latter if little of the former in a series of answers released yesterday and republished here today.

Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald asked why the submarine SAS Manthatisi was being refurbished in a dry dock. “Where else would the honourable member suggest we should refurbish a submarine?” was the response.

With the Parliamentary recess more journalists had more time to read the responses. The Independent Group, Business Day and Politicsweb all commented on her responses. The Independent notes “Groenewald was not the only MP to feel the lash of Sisulu’s tongue in written replies to parliamentary questions released yesterday.”

Business Day’s Wyndham Hartley noted Sisulu has “developed a reputation for giving evasive or ‘non- reply’ answers and he labelled yesterday’s “another round of evasive replies.” Among the most amusing of her non-answers last year was the response to a question whether any alteration had been done to her home for security reasons after her appointment as defence minister: “‘We have requested the necessary information as soon as that has been received a substantive follow up response will be forwarded.” This was, in fact, a standard response to many questions, so many, indeed, that the Democratic Alliance’s chief whip, Mike Ellis last November took up the matter with the Leader of Government Business in Parliament, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.

Even the Parliamentary Questions Unit that month took issue with her ministerial responses, saying they would not be accepted as answers unless they addressed the issues raised. Parliamentary official Michael Plaatjies said the response “We have requested the necessary information as soon as that has been received a substantive follow up response will be forwarded” was not an answer but merely information. “After careful consideration we have determined that the responses provided were not replies to the questions, but were information. We have therefore returned all such questions to the question paper until the replies are provided,” Plaatjies wrote the DoD.

Whether this approach still stands is open to question, as the reminder of Groenewald’s question is answered with a similar formulation: “As soon as I have the information for questions 2 and 3, it will be forwarded to the Honourable Member.” It appears from the question, and one posed last month, Groenewald is probing rumours the submarine’s wiring was damaged/destroyed by a power surge and was in need of refurbishment/replacement. Groenewald, contacted in Edinburgh, Scotland, was bemused at the answer and said he would be pursuing the wiring issue further.

DA deputy defence spokesman Donald Smiles wanted to know details of the launch of the recently formed Department of Military of Veterans (DMV), including how many guests were invited, the veterans’ associations askd to attend and the cost of the event. The undated reply: “The Department of Military Veterans has not yet been launched. Perhaps the Honourable Member got his facts mixed up.” Perhaps, but defenceWeb reported the launch in late April. It was reportedly a lavish affair held at Denel’s Irene campus.

Smiles also asked what plans are in place to utilise the DMV’s R20 million budget. The reply: “This is very detailed information, which is usually given by the Director-General to the Portfolio Committee. I am certain the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans should be able to arrange this.” But DMV DG Tsepe Motumi’s last Parliamentary outing, in February, as Acting Secretary for Defence, was what The Star columnist James Clarke would calla “Tour de Farce”.

Smiles’ colleague David Maynier also got a drubbing. He asked some questions about the SA Air Force’s small fleet of AgustaWestland Super Lynx 300 maritime helicopters, principally the acquisition cost, subsequent capital and operational costs, the date the order was placed and whether there were any plans to acquire more or other such helicopters. Also queried was the armament of these helicopters. The response: “The Honourable Member is advised to refer this question to the Joint Standing Committee on Defence, whose mandate it is to look into all such matters that are, as the Honourable Member so well knows, CLASSIFIED.” Capitals in the original.

Maynier also asked whether “she has plan [sic] to de-unionise the SA National Defence Force.” The reply: “This question has been dealt with extensively on numerous occasions in meetings with the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans. I can not understand what the Honourable Member is hoping to get out of this.” As far as one can determine, the plan has been much announced since last August’s mutinous riot. But no details that one can discern. What are the timelines? What about the Constitutional Court judgments that cleared the way for military unions? Etcetera.

Business Day quotes Maynier as saying “…Motlanthe promised to ensure that ministers reply to parliamentary questions. However, minister Sisulu seems to think that she has enough ‘political weight’ to defy the deputy president and continue not properly replying to question in Parliament.

The fact is that the minister’s refusal to properly reply to questions is just one more step on the road to turning the defence department into an apartheid-style ‘state within a state’, safe from scrutiny and oversight by Parliament.”

It reminds of the scene in Yes, Minister where

a politician notes that “opposition is about asking tough questions”, to which a DG responds “and government is about not answering them. Another bureaucrat added that “open government is a contradiction in terms. You can be open or you can have government.” Perhaps our minister has been watching too much television…