NEWS ANALYSIS: Oversight no gentleman’s game

As Parliament this month gives itself the usual pat on the back for the “activism and responsiveness” displayed in the more than 1 400 committee meetings held this year, questions remain on how effective it exercised its oversight role in burning issues like irregularities in the Passenger Rail Agency (Prasa).

Transcripts of meetings by the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, show there were at least six meetings the past year in which the Portfolio Committee on Transport discussed concerns over Prasa. This, however, resulted in little improvement yet huge frustration. This lack of proper oversight has now resulted in the group #UniteBehind’s campaign for safety on trains and their calls for a proper investigation into alleged irregularities in Prasa. The group now wants to challenge Prasa in court. In its year-end statement, Parliament states it will “continue implementing the Constitution’s requirement that it oversee and scrutinise executive action”. “This includes ensuring information needed is provided to enable this exercise of scrutiny and oversight.” Yet this has not been the case in the portfolio committee meetings on issues of Prasa and properly exercising its oversight role has been a hit and miss exercise the past years.

More recently the Passenger Rail Agency failed to submit its annual report to Parliament as required by the Public Management Finance Act (PFMA) which frustrates the committee’s attempts for proper oversight. By yesterday Prasa spokesperson Nana Zenani in reply to questions sent by ParlyBeat could not indicate when this will happen. Zenani also did not indicate whether the Prasa Interim board had its meeting that was scheduled for 13 December and whether the audit due to be finalised by 30 November, was indeed finalised. Prasa in its last meeting with the committee assured MPs all this will happen. Zenani, however, now changed tune and was less forthcoming with information. “The Board will communicate its next steps with regards to key issues once it has reviewed all the necessary information before it.  This will be done in a form of a statement.”

 

Chairperson of the portfolio committee on Transport, Dikiledi Magadzi did not respond to ParlyBeat’s questions. In one of the committee’s last statements on Prasa however, she said the committee will “prioritise” Prasa early in 2018 to deal with all the governance issues in the state entity to help improve service delivery. This, Magadzi argues, will be an “important step to ensure that the Committee offered support, and guided the interim board on what issues the Committee had raised since 2014”. The committee’s interaction with Prasa to date has been tumultuous. In March this year, the committee resolved to establish an ad hoc committee for an inquiry into Prasa’s problems. On the same day, the then Minister of Transport Dipuo Peters dissolved the Prasa board resulting in ANC MPs a week later backtracking on the committee’s decision to have the inquiry. DA MPs accused the ANC of allowing the minister to tell the committee how it should conduct oversight. So, getting answers to Prasa’s challenges have been a constant struggle – one that some MPs arguably have not fought hard enough for. MPs have in many of the committee meetings expressed their disappointment over Prasa not providing the answers despite promising MPs written responses. And that was that until the next time it happened. The minister at times was also not very forthcoming. On one occasion in March this year, the minister failed to attend a Prasa briefing in the committee due to “illness”. Yet later the same day she attended the Plenary in the National Assembly leaving MPs in the committee furious.

In what the #UniteBehind Campaign has now dubbed Prasaleaks, shows how billions was spent irregularly in Prasa on security and construction contracts. GroundUp recently reported about R9,1 billion that was paid to contractors and that R2,5 billion of this was spent irregularly. It is said this is but the tip of the iceberg. Such an intricate network of what is now labelled as state capture and brazen looting of state-owned entities like Prasa have many enablers that are either knowingly or not, complicit. Many of them are the very MPs who fail to ask the right questions if at all. Every allegation of state capture is also a testament to a fundamentally flawed oversight process in Parliament and misplaced political allegiances at the expense of South Africans. It is the ultimate indictment on Parliament’s constitutionally mandated role of holding the executive to account. Exercising this oversight shouldn’t be a gentleman’s game or the current spectacle of a Parliament seemingly bending to the executive’s whims. It should be unapologetically vigorous. It should be consistent. Only then will a pat on the back for Parliament be truly justified.

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