Parliament must be careful of the precedent it’s setting

The inquiry by Parliament into Eskom has degenerated into a kangaroo court, writes ASISIPHO SOLANI

Journalists were taking naps already but they were not going to miss the showdown. It was going to be a clash of former cabinet colleagues. Pravin Gordhan, the opposition’s hero, was definitely going to give them a news bite. It was worth the wait when Gordhan came on just before midnight.

The erstwhile minister of finance started off by recognising the training anti-Apartheid activists received when under interrogation from security police. It was the second time that Gordhan made the remarks, the first being when Lynne Brown, together with her deputy Ben Martins, accounted to the portfolio committee on public enterprises about the pension payout of Brian Molefe, the former Eskom chief executive.

Gordhan realised then, as he realised now in the inquiry into state-owned enterprises, that there was one thing in the room that no-one could take away from either Brown or Martins. In fact, the three were probably the most senior political figures and without Martins in the room this time, Gordhan and Brown were the most formidable struggle veterans. Both of them know the trenches, they know the insides of prisons cells, they know security police interrogation. Even worse, both knew the reality that their non-cooperation with security force interrogation could easily end in a fake suicide; an eventuality that occurred to their comrades.

For Brown, both appearances were events in the normal course of democracy. She is a member of the executive, she must account, for this is what she spent her adult life fighting for. She had sacrificed her family, her future and her fortuity for the democratic dispensation that she is now a senior leader in. Mud has been thrown at her, mud is being thrown at her and mud will be thrown at her, she knows, for that is the cost of an open transparent and accountable society.

When the majority of the men her age in the portfolio committee were either benefitting from the fruits of Apartheid, she was fighting with the generation whose numbers include the black parents of those who are younger than her in the committee. When the DA shadow minister was growing up in a white household, where the next meal was not a worry, and her future safely secured through education, Brown was teaching the children on the Cape Flats how to write along with how to resist.

When bombs were going off at the Mitchell’s Plain police station and the main roads of AZ Berman, Spine Road and Eisleben were targets for barricades of burning tyres, Brown was at the forefront of opposing the evolved Apartheid system in the form of the Tri-cameral parliamentarianism. Heading the Mitchell’s Plain Youth Congress in 1979, Brown became a member of the United Women’s Organisation from 1979 to 1985. Later she would serve as provincial secretary to the United Women’s Congress after being the education officer. In particular, she served as a member of the finance committee of the United Democratic Front.

Given this history, Gordhan knew the calibre of cadre he was up against and tried his utmost to get under her skin, to intimidate and to accuse but then demanding that she not respond to his ill-informed views.

At the commencement of the committee’s session with the minister, Brown explained that she was advised not to attend what she had earlier described as a kangaroo court. Indeed, the proceedings of the committee and the inquiry have denigrated into a kangaroo court where sensationalism and false accusations reign supreme. As long as the names of the Guptas, President Zuma, Dudu Myeni, Salim Essa, Duduzane Zuma, among others, were mentioned members of the committee were happy.  

They are not interested in understanding why there are institutional challenges at our state-owned enterprises. The committee is not interested in fair views and well-researched based investigations into the state of SOE’s rather both academic research pieces are based on anonymous sources, media reports and speculative allegations. These pieces of research would never stand the test of an ethics committee of any reputable university yet the portfolio committee accepted the shabby material as evidence. Academics who had also done research but who held a different view as the ones adopted were not given the space and time to make their presentations.

It is a kangaroo court because a fundamental principle in our constitutional dispensation are rules in law such as audi alterem partem; the other party must be heard. Gordhan arrogantly and rudely interrupted the minister when she wanted to correct some of the statements that he had made. He, the chairperson of the committee and the rest of his colleagues were not interested in the truth rather they were interested in misinformed statements but even more so denied Brown the audi alterem rule.

Even worse, this kangaroo court insists that the onus of proof lies not on the one making the allegation but the one accused to prove otherwise. Take, for example, an alleged meeting between Zola Tsotsi, the former Eskom board chairperson, Toni Gupta, Salim Essa and the minister. Tsotsi contends that the four met in the minister’s house. Instead of asking Tsotsi, who is the one making the allegation, to provide evidence that the meeting did in fact happen, the minister is expected by the committee to prove that the meeting never took place. 

In the end, members of parliament were quick to call a minister a liar but a disgruntled former chairperson is to believed. In fact, the committee refuses to venture into an area that other fair processes would have happily ventured and that is to ask the two other people, alleged to have been at the meeting, whether in fact, a meeting of that nature took place.

Gordhan was congratulated by opposition members afterward for his excellent performance; albeit maybe sarcastically. One witnessed the heads of opposition members nodding away as Gordhan brazenly and rudely questioned his comrade. For indeed, what is expected of him even by the minister herself hence her appearance, was for vigorous, robust but honest interrogation. Instead what we received, as the South African public, was a bitter and bad-mannered performance unbefitting members of parliament.

One is not sure how the minister’s participation in this process which was aptly described as a kangaroo court strengthened our institutions of transparency, accountability and the rule of law. History, as early as January next year, will tell us whether members of parliament, especially ANC ones after their elective conference, were ever serious about taking our state assets seriously. Assets which the minister is the custodian of and which she is constitutionally bound to protect and defend. 

If anything, while we might not be sure of our democratic institutions, ANC members of parliament and whether these were improved through this process, one thing is for sure; Brown will defend parliament and when it becomes a kangaroo court, she will tell South Africans it has become just that.

Solani is an NEC & NWC Member of the South African Students Congress (SASCO)

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