Muthambi is no stranger to Parliamentary oversight measures, having been in the hot seat during the inquiry into maladministration at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) during her tenure as Communications Minister. This time around, Muthambi was requested to appear before the Public Service Portfolio Committee to explain her spending almost R500 000 in taxpayer money on flights and accommodation for 30 friends and relatives she invited to attend her Budget Speech in Cape Town in May this year. This was before the cabinet reshuffle, while she occupied the position of Communications Minister. Since her transfer to the Public Service executive position, Muthambi has allegedly hired staff without following procedure and it is reported that her hiring policy is nepotistic. She also reportedly stripped the Director-General of the Department of Public Service and Administration, Mashwahle Diphofa, of his powers to appoint staff. Naturally, Parliament would be interested in her accounting for such conduct, especially during a time of austerity and with a spotlight on the functioning of organs of state. Muthambi however, did not appear. Neither did her Director-General, despite confirming attendance.
The no-show is supposedly in solidarity with the MPs who indicated their disdain for Khoza’s leadership. It could also just be another member of the Executive operating outside of the law and with impunity, as has become a trend. Social Development Minister, Bathabile Dlamini has failed to appear for accountability proceedings more than once. Finance Minister, Malusi Gigaba, and his successor at the Department of Home Affairs, Hlengiwe Mkhize, also failed to appear before Parliament to answer questions concerning the naturalisation of the Gupta family during his time at the Department of Home Affairs.
The Constitution requires the National Assembly to provide mechanisms to ensure that all executive organs of state are accountable to it. It also tasks the National Assembly with the maintenance of oversight of the exercise of Executive power. These constitutional mandates are enforced via the work of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committees. Failure to appear before these bodies by a member of the Executive is a direct violation of the Constitution, as it hinders Parliament from effectively carrying out its duties. This repeated disregard for the authority of Parliament is a cause for concern.
The MPs who sit on the Public Service Committee were rightfully upset with Muthambi’s absence and have indicated a desire to penalise Ministers who purposefully disregard Parliament’s authority. The MPs suggested that Muthambi pay, from her own pocket, for the time and resources she wasted by her absence. This is in line with the nation’s foundational values of transparency, openness and accountability. The penalising of MPs who do not honour their obligation to Parliament would create a further incentive – although their oath of office should be sufficient – to attend all required meetings.
The Chief Whip’s comments on the conduct of the five MPs are a welcome first step. However, the might of Parliament’s powers to hold errant MPs accountable should be demonstrated, to ensure Parliament can effectively discharge its constitutional mandate of oversight over the Executive. Members of the Executive cannot flout their responsibility before Parliament. Neither can public officials recklessly spend taxpayer funds for personal enrichment, directly or otherwise. The involvement of party politics, or any other agendas, in the functioning of Parliament cannot be condoned in South Africa’s democracy. Furthermore, this involvement is yet another example of the failure to distinguish between party and State. Perhaps the governing party should not simply criticise those MPs who do not wish to fulfil their parliamentary duties, but also consider replacing them with individuals who will.
By Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights