Panel says Parliament needs to reconsider the SDP to restore image

An independent panel reviewing the performance of Parliament says its handling of an investigation into controversies surrounding a R47 billion Strategic Defence Package (SDP) that saw South Africa acquire 50 fighter aircraft, 30 helicopters, four frigates and three submarines has done tremendous damage to the legislature.
The panel, commissioned by Parliament in 2006, yesterday briefed the media on its findings and recommendations. Panel chairwoman – and former MP – Prega Govender says the lawmaker could restore its “battered image” if it re-opened discussions on the SDP.
“The panel recommends that Parliament should revisit the arms deal and take such steps as are necessary, including a debate on the adoption of a resolution calling for the appointment of such a judicial commission of enquiry into the arms deal,” she was quoted by the SA Press Association and SABC as saying.
The panel included University of Stellenbosch Chancellor – and former liberal MP – Frederick van Zyl Slabbert as well as political analysts Judith February and Professor Sipho Seepe.

SAPA notes the panel`s recommendation on the SDP was tabled just a few weeks after President Kgalema Motlanthe rejected a request for the matter to be investigated by an independent [judicial] commission of inquiry.

The SDP, is however, on the agenda of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, which is expected to hold a hearing on numerous and persistent allegations of wrongdoing regarding the acquisition in coming weeks. A variety of parties and individuals have been asked to present evidence in support of their allegations – some up to a decade old – at the hearing.
MPs and industry insiders are keen to have the allegations either confirmed or rebutted. The allegations and the handling of previous probes have not only damaged Parliament and the credibility of the governing African National Congress, but also the veracity of the defence department`s acquisition and procurement systems thereby casting a pall of suspicion over every project and each official as well as any company involved in that process.       
National Assembly Speaker Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde said Parliament welcomed the panel’s findings and recommendations, but added it was up to the next generation of MPs – who will come into office after an election expected for April – to decide whether to implement the recommendations.

The panel also highlighted Parliament’s weak oversight processes, its failure to adequately consult the public on matters of national interest and a failure by its members to adhere to high moral standards.

Mahlangu-Nkabinde said the current National Assembly leadership had already initiated a number of processes to rectify many of the weaknesses highlighted in the report. “We never said we had to wait for the panel to give us a report in order to address certain things – we had continued to do our work,” she said.

The Democratic Alliance (DA), currently the largest Parliamentary opposition party, welcomed the report.

Chief whip Ian Davidson says his party has in recent years repeatedly voiced its concern that Parliament has failed to fulfil constitutional obligations such as ensuring oversight over the Executive, holding the Executive collectively and individually accountable, ensuring that issues of national significance are debated and considered, and ensuring that the public is properly consulted and their views taken into account before legislation is passed.
Davidson says the most important recommendations in the report are:
  • That Parliament gives consideration to the impact of the current party list electoral system and the possibility of electoral reform;
  • That, in light of the Travelgate [travel voucher fraud] issue, the conditions under which Members of Parliament become ineligible to hold office be reviewed;
  • That Parliament take steps to improve the quality and substance of debate within the institution, and strive timeously to debate current matters of public concern. This includes revisiting the arms deal and holding a debate on the adoption of a resolution calling for the establishment of a judicial commission of enquiry into the arms deal;
  • That the current mechanisms through which unanswered parliamentary questions are followed up on be assessed and revised, so that the Executive is held to account for failing to reply to parliamentary questions; and
  • That Parliament gives serious consideration to the issue of whether Presiding Officers should resign form senior political party positions for the duration of their appointment.
“It is imperative that the recommendations contained in the assessment report be properly considered by the relevant structures in Parliament, so that they can be adopted in the future. If this does not occur, this assessment will be rendered nothing more than a fruitless, ineffectual exercise and a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Davidson says.
Van Zyl Slabbert served on an earlier panel on electoral reform that concluded SA should move from a purely proportional representation (PR) system to a mixed regime including PR and constituency seats.
Introduced to secure racial minorities and other special interests permanent representation in Parliament, the PR system has had the perverse result of literally making MPs employees of their parties and subject to the pleasure of party leaders. In the case of the majority party, where those leaders generally also fill portfolios in the Executive, it has had the added result of making MPs accountable to the very people they are meant to supervise.          
Motlanthe`s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, declined to act on that committee`s recommendations and expressed himself satisfied with the PR system as is. Many critics of the SDP, notably former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein have said Mbeki used this power to manipulate previous enquiries into SDP irregularities.