South Africa’s parliamentary oversight finally comes into view

When Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown and the Eskom board appeared before South Africa’s Parliament last week, the country saw what proper parliamentary oversight looked like. The ANC was fully engaged and didn’t provide Brown and the board any cover, while the opposition beavered away asking pointed questions.

The meeting was jam-packed with journalists and members of the public and the proceedings were on live television. It’s rare to see such a powerful example of the ruling party taking on one of its own.

But then Pravin Gordhan, recently deployed to the public enterprises committee, is no ordinary Member of Parliament (MP). He is the former finance minister.

Gordhan pulled no punches during the meeting. The committee had summoned Brown to explain the controversial and confusing reinstatement of Eskom CEO Brian Molefe. The explanations for his return have shifted multiple times.

At first the public heard Molefe had been spirited back to Eskom after his brief and opportunistic stint as an MP because he had not actually resigned in November last year. This despite Molefe’s tearful press conference at the time, after which Brown accepted his resignation.

After a storm of public criticism this version changed and it was said he’d taken early retirement. And then, without pause, there was version three: Molefe may have taken unpaid leave. That would have meant he was on leave as CEO of Eskom, yet an MP at the same time.

Brown, flanked by the Eskom board and its chairperson Ben Ngubane, told the committee that hers was an honest mistake – the board had misinformed her and at all times she thought Molefe had resigned.

It was all rather surreal. Brown had signed an affidavit to this effect, and the ANC immediately responded by saying she had committed perjury.

Wherever the truth lies, her discomfort throughout the hearing was palpable. She sought to disguise this by waffling her way through the pieces of legislation that govern Eskom and explaining its ‘developmental agenda’. All this was irrelevant to the matter at hand. She did admit however that ‘there were issues’ within Eskom and that she had undertaken to institute an inquiry.

The board itself spoke through Ngubane and fellow board member Pat Naidoo. Both also blustered their way through the questions, seeking to make the case that Eskom is a model of corporate governance. Brown and the board denied that they had been ‘instructed’ by anyone to reinstate Molefe. No one in the room seemed that convinced.

Brown said the matter was ‘being left to government’. But she is part of the government and seems hesitant to deal with the Eskom board. She has also shown little appetite to deal with the public protector’s findings that some of its members were appointed in an irregular manner and it has presided over breaches of corporate governance.

One wonders why she has not exercised oversight more keenly. What is holding her back? Or, rather, who? At the very least, Brown should be incensed that the board misled her into going on record to accept Molefe’s resignation in November. Yet, her response is one of passivity.

Gordhan’s questions were direct and no answers were forthcoming when he told the board: ‘The public is becoming increasingly aware that you are abusing state property, and state resources, in the name of yourselves and not in the name of the state public. This is about capturing Eskom for the benefit of the few, that’s the reality.

‘We’ve reached a stage in managing governance in South Africa where there are a significant number of people in bureaucracy and elsewhere who are taking a view that says: “I don’t care if you know what I’m doing; I don’t care how many reports the public protector or anyone else provides because I am protected.” The question is, by whom and at what cost?’

Brown understood the gravity of the exchange. If anyone knows where skeletons are hidden, it’s Gordhan. That’s why having someone like Gordhan exercise oversight, as an ordinary MP, is such a powerful statement. But it’s more than that; it shows yet again the deep divisions within the ANC and that that is now filtering into the parliamentary caucus too.

Whoever deployed Gordhan to the public enterprises committee was doing so deliberately. It was no coincidence either that last week ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu committed to establishing an ad hoc multi-party committee on party funding.

The motion of no confidence vote will show us just how far the ANC caucus is prepared to go in tackling Zuma and his band of corrupt associates. The country has to wait for the Constitutional Court’s verdict on whether that vote will be secret or not.

So the political sands are shifting, even if slowly. For the ANC, the removal of Zuma would be only one part of the equation; excising the network of patronage would be another one altogether.

The months ahead will be messy and we can expect some contradictory messages from the fractured ANC as one faction seeks to gain ground over the other. The provincial battles will be dirty and possibly even bloody, for there is much at stake as even the ANC alliance partners turn on Zuma.

Indeed, the ANC policy conference at the end of June will be another leadership proxy battle, yet no less messy.

*This article was published in ISS Today. To view the article on their website click here.

Judith February is a consultant on governance matters and affiliated to the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice.  Prior to that she was Executive Director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance Unit and also Head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme.  Judith has worked extensively on issues of good governance, transparency and accountability within the South African context.  She is a regular commentator in the media on politics in SA and in 2009 served on an ad hoc panel to evaluate the effectiveness of South Africa’s Parliament. She is a regular columnist for Media24 and also an occasional columnist for the Daily Maverick and other publications.  She is the co-editor of “Testing democracy: which way is South Africa going?” March 2010, Idasa. She was awarded a summer fellowship in 2009 at the Freeman Spogli Institute for Democracy Development and the rule of law at Stanford University, California and in 2012 was awarded a Spring Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC.

To see Judith February's extensive list of publications on our website please click here.

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