Last week Thursday, President Jacob Zuma appeared before Parliament in his last oral question session for the year, and quite possibly his last one oral question session as President.
Oral questions to the President take place only once a Term, roughly every three months, and remain one of the few mechanisms available to elected Members of Parliament to hold the Executive accountable. Openness, transparency and accountability are the essence of what the Constitution envisaged by such oral question sessions.
In a show of total disdain for our country and its people, Zuma once again made a mockery of the institution of Parliament by appearing to answer oral questions, unprepared and unwilling to answering the questions.
As, Leader of the Opposition, I posed a clear and unequivocal question to the President relating to the past decade of legal action in the now infamous “Spy Tapes”, and the 783 charges of corruption against him:
“What is the total amount in Rand of all legal costs incurred by (a) his Office and/or (b) the Presidency since 1 May 2009 in respect of the irrational decision by the National Prosecuting Authority to drop the 783 counts of fraud, corruption and racketeering against him in his personal capacity?”
In his reply, the President refused to answer my question, despite several exchanges between him and I. The Deputy Speaker - who was presiding at the time - protected him and refused to compel him to answer it. The President's reply was as follows:
The litigation referred to was not at the instance of the President but was initiated by a political party.
The President has defended it, as he is entitled to do, at State expense according to the provisions of the State Attorney Act 56 of 1957.
This benefit is extend to all who are employed in the service of the state.
I thank you”
This was quite clearly a deliberate refusal by the President to honour his constitutional duty to the country and its people, and to tell us how much of their money he has used over the past decade to keep himself out of jail.
This was not a matter of lack of knowledge nor lack of time to prepare. The Presidency is given sixteen (16) days prior notice of the question to allow ample time for preparation of a response, and to undertake whatever research might be required to answer any initial or follow-up questions. The task is neither difficult nor onerous.
Therefore, we have taken a decision to approach the High Court for an order to compel the President to answer the question put to him in Parliament, as required to by the Constitution and the Rules the National Assembly. The DA will file papers in the coming days, and we are confident that the courts will compel the President to properly account to Parliament as per sections 42, 55 and 85 of the Constitution, and to answer the question fully and truthfully.
We are also of the view that in the same circumstances, Parliament’s presiding officers failed in their constitutional duties. The National Assembly has a constitutional responsibility to hold the Executive to account. In the Nkandla case, the National Assembly was roundly - and correctly - criticised for failing to hold the President to account for his failure to implement the remedial action of the Public Protector.
Indeed, the Constitution is crystal clear in Parliament’s powers and responsibilities. Section 55(2) states –
The National Assembly must provide for mechanisms:
- to ensure that all executive organs of state in the national sphere of government are accountable to it; and
- to maintain oversight of–
1. the exercise of national executive authority, including the implementation of legislation; and
any organ of state.
2. Equally, Section 42(3) of the Constitution states –
The National Assembly is elected to represent the people and to ensure government by the people under the Constitution. It does this by choosing the President, by providing a national forum for public consideration of issues, by passing legislation and by scrutinising and overseeing executive action.
If ever there was a clear-cut case of the need to scrutinise and oversee executive action, it lies in requiring the President to account for the money that was spent in defending what was ultimately judged by the Supreme Court of Appeal to be an irrational decision – namely, the decision to discontinue the prosecution against him.
In the Nkandla judgment, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng did not mince his words when he referred to the failure of the National Assembly to hold the President accountable. The Chief Justice said, referring to the Public Protector’s report, that
“[the National Assembly] had another equally profound obligation to fulfil. And that was to scrutinise the President’s conduct as demanded by section 42(3)…”
We contend that the question put to, and ignored by, the President, falls into the same category of failure by the National Assembly to fulfil its Constitutional responsibilities. Equally appalling was the conduct of the Deputy Speaker, Lechesa Tsenoli. The Rules of the National Assembly make it clear that –
26 (1) In exercising the authority of the Speaker, as provided for in the Constitution and legislation and the rules of Parliament, the Speaker must:
- ensure that the National Assembly provides a national forum for public consideration of issues, passes legislation and scrutinises and oversees executive action in accordance with section 42(3) of the Constitution;
- ensure that parties represented in the National Assembly participate fully in the proceedings of the Assembly and its committees and forums, and facilitate public involvement in the process of the Assembly in accordance with Sections 57 and 59 of the Constitution; and
- whenever possible, consult with relevant office-bearers and structure within Parliament to achieve the efficient and effective functioning of Parliament in a transparent and accountable manner.
The Deputy Speaker did nothing of the sort. He abdicated his responsibilities in the most cowardly manner, and allowed the President to elect whether or not to answer the question. Parliament, too, has become of the “President’s Keepers”.
As a consequence of their dereliction of duty, the DA will approaching the High Court to find Deputy Speaker, Lechesa Tsenoli, to be in serious dereliction of their duties. We will also be moving a motion in Parliament to remove the Deputy Speaker in terms of section 52(4) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa read with National Assembly Rule 28.
The DA will continue to ensure that the Constitution and the rule of law respected and upheld by all who hold elected office, none more so than the President. Those who fail to do so will be brought to book.