The Democratic Alliance says it wants Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe – in his capacity as Leader of Government Business in Parliament – to intervene in what the opposition party says is a political battle between Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu and the Parliamentary portfolio committee overseeing her work.
At issue is two interim reports by the Interim National Defence Force Service Commission on its findings of service conditions in the South African National Defence Force. The Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans is currently considering the Defence Amendment Bill that among other aspects, will create a permanent service commission. At the start of Thursday’s committee hearing, attended by defenceWeb courtesy of Sisulu’s office, MPs from the DA and the governing African National Congress argued they needed the reports to assist them in understanding that part of the Bill dealing with the permanent commission.
Sisulu said the documents were “interim” reports and as such were “work in progress” that could not yet be tabled before the committee. She added the reports first had to be completed and “served before Cabinet” as well as President Jacob Zuma – as Commander-in-Chief of the defence force – before it could come to Parliament. She was quite adamant that doing otherwise would erode the division between the executive and the lawmaker.
But MPs, notably Sisulu’s DA shadow, David Maynier, said they were being asked to legislate blind. One of the aspects addressed in the reports was the need for a permanent commission. The MPs said they cannot pass the Bill without knowing the contents of the report. Sisulu sought to assure them the contents had no bearing on the Bill. ANC MPs eventually seemed to accept this,but Maynier did not. Sisulu also sought to counter release of the reports by avering that the interim commission was her creation and reported to her. As such, its reports were off limits to MPs.
Debate was heated from the start with Sisulu questioning the status of the meeting. She noted the issue of the reports had come up three times before and each time she had left with the impression the matter had been resolved. She also questioned the status of correspondence between her office and that of committee chairman Mnyamazeli Booi, noting it was not signed. The letter, dated Wednesday, again asked for the reports, adding that the committee had sought legal opinion on the matter and that this “supports our belief that the portfolio committee is entitled to these reports.” The letter added that the committee could not proceed on the Bill until it had the reports and could even demand them by means of a resolution in the National Assembly.
The Times newspaper reported Sisulu reserved her sharpest words for Maynier, who had suggested a legislative “go slow” to compel her to hand over the reports. “Minister, we want the reports. Are you going to hand them over, or are you not going to hand them over because if you do not, this committee needs to consider compelling you to [do so],” he said. Sisulu accused Maynier of posturing and “ranting” and “raving” in the media to enhance his status in the DA ahead of last month’s DA leadership elections. “Government does not work in line with what you want to say to the media. There is absolutely no crisis in the defence force and you know that. You are posturing and being populist on an issue that should be national security. I object to that,” she said.
Maynier yesterday responded in a statement that the “minister is currently involved in what amounts to a ‘Mexican standoff’ with both the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans. “The minister hit back at the portfolio committee on defence and military veterans with a document that reads less like a legal opinion than a full scale political assault on Parliament.” His statement says the document reportedly states that “any portfolio committee foolish enough to issue a summons to a minister on a matter of executive privilege will be met with an iron-clad claim of executive privilege”.
Maynier says the standoff between the minister and the portfolio committee “is symptomatic of a larger ‘accountability crisis’. The fact is that the minister has consistently resisted being properly accountable to Parliament. The DA therefore calls on Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to intervene and to ensure that Minister Sisulu rolls out a damage control plan in Parliament.” he DA MP says the “damage control plan” should include the minister announcing a date for the briefing by General Godfrey Ngwenya, Chief of the South African National Defence Force, on the combat readiness of the defence force – something that has not happened since the May 2009 elections; announcing a date when the minister and the defence department will meet and properly account to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts on the auditing status of the defence department; releasing the interim reports of the National Defence Force Service Commission – the issue at hand on Thursday; releasing the reports of the Ministerial Task Team on Military Veterans (which led to he creation of the Department of Mlitary Veterans but which has never reached MPs; making a commitment to both reply and provide proper answers to parliamentary questions; and appointing a “fit for purpose” person in the ministry of defence and military veterans to properly deal with correspondence, defence force related complaints and access to information requests “which hardly ever receive a response.”
Maynier says this “will go a long way to building up confidence and breaking down distrust in Parliament. This is in the end what is in the best interests of the men and women who serve in the defence force.”