Proposal to revise Code of Conduct for public officials

Ethics and Members' Interest

18 February 2010
Chairperson: Mr L Landers (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Members discussed a draft document which proposed that the Committee should develop several programmes to facilitate a national debate on standards of Ethics in Public life. Members supported the proposals and felt that it was important for the public to know that not all public representatives were corrupt and that trust in public representatives needed to be drastically improved.

They said that the South African system of declaration was hopelessly inadequate and that they should look at implementing part of the Canadian system which was for public representatives or any close relative of theirs who had done or were doing business with government should make available full details of the contracts and or any relevant information.

Members also felt that as a way forward, they should look at best practice. They would go about that by looking at what systems different countries had in place to deal with similar situations but they should stay away from the American system and instead, South Africa should teach ethics and not read about it.

Meeting report

The Chairperson explained to Members that their agenda was very short but the content was not. A document had been drafted showing that the public viewed public officials as corrupt and untrustworthy. This perception prevailed despite the fact that all levels of government had codes of ethical conduct. The document outlined various initiatives that the Committee should develop in facilitating a national debate on standards of Ethics in Public life. Members were invited to comment on the proposals.

Dr Z Luyenga (ANC) complemented the author of the report and said that it was definitely a document which assisted the Members. The openness and honesty which was reflected in the document in as far as looking at what the role of public representatives should be was something to be admired. He also appreciated the fact that there was a need for public engagement on the matter because there was a perception that public representatives were not behaving the way they were supposed to.

Ms D Nhlengethwa (ANC) echoed the sentiments expressed by the previous speaker and congratulated the author of the document. It was very informative. It was also necessary for the public to know that not all the public representatives were corrupt. She welcomed the fact that the pubic would be educated about how they should report situations where they thought the public representatives were behaving in an inappropriate manner.

Ms B Ngcobo (ANC) asked whether there was a possibility of working with other institutions such as the Public Service Commission or any other institution. In addition, she sought clarity on the role of the Auditor General on this issue and to what extent the Committee was working with their counterparts in the provinces.
Mr M Shilowa (COPE) supported the proposal that there should be a public discourse on what the expected conduct of public representatives should be. It would be useful to interact with other institutions such as Idasa and the Public Protector. If an individual had unexplained wealth, it would only be a problem if he did not declare everything he had. Nothing could be done, accept for non-disclosure. They needed to find a way of doing that. There was a tendency to draft codes in the negatives as in “thou shall not”, rather than to map out what was understood to be acceptable and ethical behaviour so rather to have said “transgression thereof”. The Committee could then have dealt with issues of disclosure after which they could discuss how enforcement could be ensured. Political parties had to bear some responsibility and should also participate in this debate. The discourse had a little to do with the work that Members were doing. Instead, it had to do with the funding of parties by private interests and their disclosure or non-disclosure thereof.

Ms A Dreyer (DA) said that she liked the general tone that came through the document. She believed that the document was a good start and that there was nothing she disagreed with. She also concurred with other Members about working with other institutions and possibly with NGO’s who could assist the Committee. Some valuable work had already been done. However, there was sometimes a conflict between members in the ethics committees- a conflict between protecting the interests of the member of one’s own party on the one hand and on the other looking at maintaining the high standards of ethical behaviour at all times which was for all of them as politicians. She believed there was a fine balance which they needed to address in their programme.

Ms M Mangena (ANC) said that she would like other spheres of governments to be involved as well especially when dealing with intergovernmental relations.

Dr Luyenga concurred with the views articulated by the other speakers. He agreed that political parties should be engaged on this issue. It was a very important step which would be useful when engaging with the public. The public that they were going to engage with would be coming from various political parties. They should however know exactly what their mandates of their parties were saying in the matter as they engaged the public. Secondly they should address the declaration of interest coupled with the ministerial handbook. Those were issues the Committee should engage with thoroughly and give proper guidance for whether it was enough for the declaration or was it enough for them to understand what the ministerial handbook said. The Committee also needed to look at what was happening in the globe in relation to the topic. Because of the global standing of South Africa as a country that had developed a world renowned Constitution, they should not do something that was contrary to the Constitution and they should engage the international community about their experiences.

Ms Ngcobo said that they needed to look at what the best practice was which could be done by looking at what other countries did and what systems they had in place.

The Chairperson was very happy with the inputs that were made. He said that he, together with the Registrar of members Interests, had been debating the issue for quite some time. They should stay away from the American system. In America, they had federal states where they had buildings filled with books which set out various codes of ethics and every time a public representative or an officer transgressed, someone would write a book about it which would go in the building. The point was that values needed to be taught instead of being read about. In the past six to nine months, the corruption of public representatives had hit the public discourse. Essentially it was elected public representatives who were doing business with government. It was encouraging that many political leaders have come out and spoken against this practise. It was equally that the Minister of Finance intended to introduce a life style audit. There has been a realisation that the systems of declaration which they had in Parliament were actually the bare minimum and were in fact hopelessly inadequate.
The Chairperson noted that the committee had been visited by delegations from Canada, Indonesia and Ireland and all three delegations had expressed their admiration for their system, the very system which Members were saying was not good enough. The Canadian system was quiet good because it asked public representatives whether they or their family members did business with government, at national, provincial or state owned enterprise level. They then requested full details of the contracts. That system was attractive and would represent a departure from what was happening at present. If Members agreed that their system of declaration was inadequate and if Members agreed that public representatives should not do business with government then they should welcome that aspect of the Canadian system and introduce it into Parliament.

The Chairperson agreed with other Members that they should discuss the topic with other institutions, especially with the Public Service Commission and the Auditor General. One of the things that had concerned him was how the tender system worked, logically and practically, whether there was a system whereby the people considering the tenders said, Company A, B and C, let them do due diligence which should include, among other things a requirement that they ascertain whether those companies had shareholders, directors and elected representatives. That brought him back to the proposal that they should change the system of declaration. After they have engaged with all the role players, they should then have a conference because all the Members present said that the following things should be done correctly- they needed to engage with the provinces and legislatures as some of their ethics committees worked very well. They should also engage with the Auditor General’s Office, Treasury and the Minister of Finance.

The Chairperson said that he asked Mr B Mashile (NCOP, ANC) to meet with the Chief Whip. The intention was to meet with the Presiding Officers to make the presentation to them. If all those steps were not followed then the way forward would not be smooth.

The Chairperson then asked the Registrar to answer some of the questions.

Ms Fazila Mohammed, Registrar of Members Interests, acknowledged that Members had raised valid questions about information. The Parliamentary Research Unit had already been engaged about the issue of research capacity. There should be an audit on the existing code of conduct. Research should also be done about the best practice around the world.
On intergovernmental relations, it was true that they were bound by the Constitution, but they could engage with different provinces. She was aware of the Speakers Forum where if matters were raised by a Chairperson the Speakers Forum would address the matter. That was only one of the structures that already existed. So instead of inventing new structures, in order to save costs, they could use structures which already existed. She also thought that the briefing to all Members on the codes was a good idea.

Mr Shilowa believed that if handled correctly, this initiative could really help enhance the public image of Parliament. They should discuss what the ideal public representatives should to be. He suggested that they did it in a non-partisan basis. The discussion would help develop a document which said what existed, what was happening in the various legislations then figuring out where the gaps were.

Mr J Van der Merwe (IFP) asked what their next step would be. The first step in his view was to get permission from the Joint Rules Committee to embark on a code of conduct for all the public representatives.

Dr Luyenge said that one of the issues which needed to be included in the document was the issue of rating of public representatives.

Mr Mashile said that he had visited the Chief Whip of the majority party to explain the intention of the meeting and the programme. The Chief Whip had some suggestions which the Committee had to decide was appropriate or not. He was however supportive of programme. He echoed what Honourable Shilowa said. It was a very important to enhance public trust in public representatives. He had advised that the Committee should make an audit of the existing code of what was expected of them as public representatives.

The Chairperson wanted to know whether the Chief Whip gave his blessing to meet with the Presiding Officers.

Mr Mashile replied that in principle the Chief Whip had given the go ahead.

The Chairperson said that that discussion was only the beginning and that the document was only the first step. He thanked Members for their input.

The meeting was adjourned.


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