The continued absence of the Minister from meetings of the Select Committee on Petitions and Executive Undertakings led to a vigorous debate among Members as to whether the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) should be allowed to present the progress report on the undertakings made by the Minister to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) in June.
The background to the debate was that the Minister and her Deputies, as well as the Director General, had not attended the previous meeting and had been asked to leave. The Committee had then resolved that it would not allow DAFF officials to address the Committee in the Minister’s absence, because the Department reported to the Minister, who in turn reported to the Committee.
The Committee was divided into two camps – those who felt the continued absence of the political leadership was undermining the Committee, and stood by the previous resolution as a matter of principle, while other Members felt that sending the Department’s delegation back to Pretoria would represent fruitless and wasteful expenditure at time when costs had to be kept to a minimum.
After intervention by the Director General, the Chairperson asked the Members to take into account that the Committee had been partly to blame for not giving the Department advance warning of not to come because of the Minister’s absence. This led the debate into new territory, with some Members saying they would leave the meeting if the Department was allowed to present, and others insisting that they would stay.
The Chairperson, in the interests of avoiding a divisive vote and retaining unity within the Committee, made a ruling that the presentation should be cancelled, and the Department was asked to leave. She said a meeting with the Minister would be requested so that Members could vent their frustrations to her.
The Chairperson did not want the matter to divide Members who still had to work together for five years.
The Chairperson took the decision to dismiss the Department and stated that a meeting with the Minister will be requested to that Members could vent their frustrations to the Minister.
Opening remarks by Chairperson
The Chairperson advised the Committee that apologies had been received from the Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Ms Thoko Didiza, Deputy Minister Mr Mcebisi Skwatsha, and Deputy Minister Mr Sdumo Dlamini.
She said she had something to explain before proceedings could commence. The Department had been supposed to attend the last Committee meeting, but unfortunately the Minister, both of her Deputies as well as Mr Mike Mlengana, Director-General of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), had not been present. As a result, the Committee had cancelled the meeting and asked the Department to leave. The justification for that decision had been clear -- the Committee dealt with executive undertakings which were made by political leaders. The implementation of such undertakings was carried out by the Director-General (DG) and the departmental staff. The Committee accepted that when Members interacted with political heads, their DGs and staff should be a part of those meetings. That was because the latter were responsible for the implementation of the executive undertakings. They would also be able to explain technical issues to Members.
The previous day, an apology had been received from the Minister stating that she could not attend the meeting. One of the Deputy-Minister was abroad, while the other was in ill health.
Mr Mlengana had had a brief meeting with the Chairperson before the meeting, at which he had pleaded with the Committee to allow the Department to take Members through the report.
The Chairperson said that a clear decision had previously been taken by the Committee not to allow the Deputy Director-General (DDG) to address the Committee. That was because the DG and the DDG accounted to the Minister, while the Minister accounted to the Committee. On that note, the Committee had advised the Chairperson to write a strongly worded letter addressed to the Minister, raising the issue of non-attendance. The Chairperson had instead requested a meeting with the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), as she had wanted to avoid unilaterally writing a letter to the Minister as the Chairperson, with out the knowledge of the Chairperson of the NCOP. That way, the letter addressed to the Minister would also have had a comment from the Chairperson of the NCOP. The Chairperson would be meeting with the Chairperson of the NCOP the following week to discuss the matter.
The Chairperson had therefore decided to put Mr Mlengana’s request to Members. He had asked to proceed with the presentation to Members, despite the absence of the Minister and both her Deputies. If there were matters that required the Minister to account, then the Minister would return to the Committee to clarify those matters.
The Chairperson asked Members to help with the matter, as it would be the third time the Department had been sent away. However, she did not want to create a precedent that allowed the non-attendance of Ministers, with officials sent in their place.
Ms C Visser (DA, North West) strongly felt that the Committee could not create a precedent. The Committee had decided that Ministers had to appear before it. The Minister had failed to appear before it three times. She meant no disrespect to the Department, but she could not allow that bad precedent to continue. The DG could not be expected to take responsibility for an executive undertaking – that could only be done by the Minister or her Deputies. She recommended that the meeting be postponed till Parliament rose again, so the Minster could be in attendance. The Minister ought to follow the rules and take accountability. She was opposed to the continuation of the meeting.
Mr S Zandamela (EFF, Mpumalanga) recalled that at the last meeting, the Minister had sent her apology only the day before the Committee meeting had been scheduled to take place. He therefore wanted to know when the apology for the current meeting had been sent to the Chairperson. Had the Department already landed in Cape Town, because that raised an issue of wasteful expenditure? He needed to understand why they flew to Cape Town, as each trip without the Minister resulted in fruitless and wasteful expenditure.
Mr Nkanyiso Mkhize, Committee Secretary, said he had received the Minister’s apology on 12 November, and two apologies the previous day from both Deputy Ministers.
Mr Zandamela pointed out that it had been more than 24 hours since the Minister’s apology had been received, so why had the meeting not been postponed so as to avoid the traveling costs incurred by the Department in traveling to a meeting the Committee would not allow to take place?
Mr I Sileku (DA, Western Cape) referred to the correspondence sent out by Mr Mkhize. The first correspondence sent out was the agenda, which had the Department’s presentation scheduled for 12:30pm. Subsequent to that there had been amendments to the agenda, and the Department’s presentation had been pushed aside because the Minister was not going to be present. The matter on the current agenda was scheduled to start at 1pm. It had been made clear that if the Minister or her Deputies were not present, then the Committee would not give the Department an audience and that undertaking had been taken by the Chairperson. The Committee could not compromise just because the Department was present. Ministers needed to understand that they had to attend meetings with the Committee.
He could not understand why the Department had gone ahead with their travels to Cape Town when the Minister had already sent an apology and given the fact that the Committee had made it clear that they would not listen to the Department in the Minister’s absence. He reiterated that the Committee meeting was meant to have started at 12:30pm, but given the fact that the Minister had sent an apology the Department had been taken off the agenda. He suggested that the Committee stand by its decision taken the previous week. That would communicate how serious the matter was to the Minister who needed to take the Committee more seriously.
Mr S Mfayela (IFP, North West) said the Committee ought to put its foot down. It had a problem with the Department. He felt that the NCOP should be respected like the National Assembly (NA), as it was not a junior house to the NA. The Minister’s actions undermined the NCOP. The NCOP was very important, as it represented the provinces. According to the Rule Book, the Department reported to the Minister and not to the Committee. The only person who accounted to NCOP was the Minister, and the Committee ought to observe the rules. The Department’s presence was appreciated, but accepting a presentation from them would be against the rules. Both the Minister and the Committee should follow the rules. The people who were currently before Members were not the people who accounted to the Members, and the Minister needed to appear so that Members could do their jobs.
Mr Mfayela also agreed that the Committee should stick to its previous resolution and the Department should be sent away. A request should be sent to the Minister to report to the Committee.
The Chairperson summarised that a majority of the Members had decided not to consider the Department’s report without the Minister present. It was not out of disrespect, but out of a need for consistency across all departments.
Mr Mlengana acknowledged the points raised by Members. However, as an accounting officer, he felt that in the current strained economy any wasteful and fruitless expenditure should be balanced against the position the Members had taken. The country’s economy was down on its knees and a lot of taxpayers’ money had been spent on a number of people who had consistently traveled to Cape Town to appear before the Committee. More worrying for him was the fact that the law would one day obligate him to use his personal money to pay for the wasteful and irregular expenditure. That was the reason he could not travel to Brazil and to the Land Summit. That had been done out of consideration for taxpayers’ money. He respected the decision taken by Members, but asked that they balance it against the value for the money spent traveling to Cape Town for the presentation. The information that would be presented to Members would be executed by himself and the Department, which placed him in a better position to answer Members’ questions. He agreed with Members about compliance, but in terms of operational imperatives he humbly asked Members to consider the cost implications.
Mr Mfayela asked the Chairperson to excuse the Department so that the Committee could deliberate the matter further.
Mr K Motsamai (EFF, Gauteng) also asked that the Committee have a private discussion before dismissing the Department.
The Chairperson excused the Department so the Committee could deliberate the matter.
The Chairperson admitted that the Committee had made an error. When she had received the Minister’s apology, she had suggested the Committee meeting be pushed back to begin at 1pm, since Members had political caucus meetings. She had also suggested that the agenda for the meeting be reshuffled to remove the presentation by the Department, based on the Committee’s previous decision not to hear presentations without the Minister. However, the postponement of the Department’s presentation had not been communicated to the Department. That meant they had traveled not knowing they had been removed from the agenda, and the Committee had failed to communicate that. She asked that Members keep that in mind when making their considerations.
Mr Mfayela was still concerned by the Minister’s behavior. It was their job, so it did not make sense to him why they continuously failed to attend Committee meetings. On the other hand, however, Members’ main priority was not to fight, but to carry out their duties. He appealed to his colleges from the EFF and the DA to allow the Committee to do its job. He was open to excusing the Department on this occasion in the hope that they would take a lesson out of the situation. He asked the Members from the EFF and the DA to consider allowing the Department to give their presentation.
Mr Motsamai realised the Committee had made a big mistake by not informing the Department that they had been taken off the agenda. That being said, he felt the Committee should stand united, as it was not a matter for the individual political parties to consider. The Committee ought to consider its error, but they still had to inform the Department that they were wrong for coming without the Minister.
Mr Zandemela agreed with Mr Mfayela, but still needed to understand why the Minister always cancelled her attendance the day before Committee meetings. Whatever decision the Committee took would not absolve the Minister. He supported the view that the Committee should consider the traveling costs incurred by the Department, but he still needed to know why the Minister did not attend meetings. The Department was innocent as they were simply carrying out their duties, but what was going on with the Minister?
The Chairperson suggested that Members should not assume that Minister was disrespecting the Committee. It was possible that the Minister did not know about the meetings, and that was why the Chairperson wanted to have a conversation with the Chairperson of the NCOP, as well as the Minister, to find out what had been going on. She explained that the Minister did not receive letters directly. Officials received the information to be communicated to the office of the Minister. Why was it that the Minister always responded to letters that had been sent well in advance, only the day before a scheduled meeting? It was possible that the officials were not giving the information to the Minister. The Minister’s absence may not be deliberate. The exact same situation had happened to the Chairperson, where information about meetings she had been invited to had not reached her. She made it clear that she was not trying to defend the Minister, but asked that the Department be allowed to present. The matter still needed to be followed up with the Minister, as the fruitless and wasteful expenditure needed to be accounted for.
Ms Visser felt the matter was about the integrity of the Committee, as a decision had been taken about the consequences that followed as a result of the Minister’s non-attendance. The Department had come before the Committee without the Minister three times, and this would be the fourth. They ought to have known what would follow if they arrived without the Minister. It was unacceptable for the Minister to say she did not know about the meetings. Everyone had a cellphone and access to Google, and the Google Diary feature which alerted users to events for the day, every day. The fruitless and wasteful expenditure was unfortunate, but the Ministry ought to empower themselves with the competence to be in a governance position, as the NCOP was also a top governance structure. The Department could be allowed to appear before the Committee for the fourth time in a row with the exact same story. It was affecting the integrity of the Committee.
She felt really sorry for Department, but declared that even in a court of law ignorance of the law was not a defence, as the rules were written in stone for all to access. For her, ignorance equated to disrespect and it was her responsibility to see that people honoured the integrity of the NCOP governing body. If the Department knew that the Minister would not be attending, then why did they not call the Committee secretary to communicate that information, and that way they would have been told not to come at all. There was simply no excuse.
Mr M Mthethwa (ANC, KwaZulu-Natal) spoke after all the opposition had expressed their views and declared on behalf of ANC that the meeting should continue. A meeting with the Minister should be scheduled to get to the bottom of the matter.
The Chairperson summarized that the majority held the view that the meeting should continue and the Department be allowed to present its report. In addition to that, a meeting must be scheduled with the Minister so that Members could vent their frustrations. That would uphold the integrity of the Committee. She took note however, that the DA felt strongly that the Committee should be consistent in not allowing the Department to present.
Ms Visser emphasised that it served no purpose to see the Minister afterwards. The undertakings were taken by the Minister, therefore no one else could answer for her. As the top structure, it was the Minister who had committed to those undertakings and not Mr Mlengana. As a matter of principle, she could not stay in the meeting if the Department were permitted to give their presentation.
The Chairperson found it unfortunate that the Committee was being divided, because the Committee had been partly at fault for not telling the Department not to come. Therefore, the wasteful and fruitless expenditure incurred in travel expenses had been caused by the Committee’s Office. That had persuaded the Chairperson to allow the presentation to go forward.
Mr Sileku was confused, and asked the Chairperson for clarity. He pointed out that before Mr Mlengana had spoken, the Chairperson had made a ruling that the majority of Members had said the Department should be released. Why was the Chairperson overturning that decision?
The Chairperson agreed with him, but explained that she had earlier been persuaded by caucus to disallow the Department from presenting, but Members had then changed their minds when they heard that the Committee’s office was partly at fault for not telling the Department not to come to the meeting.
Mr Sileku did not recall the majority of Members calling for a continuation of the meeting. Furthermore, the Department could not make Members feel guilty about not allowing the presentation by raising the argument of fruitless and wasteful expenditure. If someone had to account for that wastage, it should be the Department.
Mr Mfayela clarified that he had spoken for himself when he appealed to his colleges. He did not want it to be an issue of majority or minority. He was just appealing to his colleagues. He felt that if Members allowed the presentation, then the Department would learn a lesson. He still supported the notion that Members needed an audience with the Minister.
Ms Visser was not disrespecting the Committee, but she was acting on integrity and principle. It was the fourth time the Department had appeared without the Minister. The Department could have called Mr Mkhize to inform the Committee that the Minister would not be present. They could not excuse themselves for not making contact. If the Committee allowed the presentation, then it would be allowed in future as well.
Mr Mthethwa said all the views should be respected and the Members that wanted to leave should leave, but the ANC would remain at the meeting.
The Chairperson did not want the matter to come to that. The Committee had been doing very well and she did not want the matter to divide Members who still had five years to work together. Things should be decided rationally and guided by the law. If there was still a strong feeling that the Department must go back, then so be it. The Chairperson did not want anyone to leave the House because there was no coherence in a resolving the matter.
She said the Department should be called back in and dismissed.
Mr Mthethwa did not agree. Even if the Minister had been present, her addition to the presentation would have been minimal. He suggested Members hear the report, but understood those Members who wanted to leave because the Committee had been undermined more than three time. That was part of democracy, where not everyone could be pleased, and those who did not want to hear the presentation could leave.
The Chairperson emphasised that she did not want things to escalate to that point.
Mr Zandamela said that Mr Mthethwa was the only one complicating the matter, and it was wrong of him to say people could leave.
The Chairperson took the final decision to call the Department back in to release them.
Mr Mthethwa insisted that the matter be put to a vote.
The Chairperson maintained that she did not want to do that, as it would divide Members.
Mr Zandamela indicated that as a matter of principle, he would leave, but Members should not push one another out. Members should try to reach common ground.
Mr Mfayela called the caucus in an attempt to reach common ground with other Members. He said the Chairperson’s ruling should be respected.
The Chairperson called the Department back in.
Mr Mthethwa maintained his point that there was no harm in getting the information that was in front of Members, and those who wanted to leave could leave. The Committee also needed to take responsibility for the error it had made in not telling the Department not to come to the meeting.
The Chairperson said Mr Mthethwa could not overturn the decision she had taken as Chairperson.
She thanked the Department for allowing Members to have a caucus, and pointed out that the length of time taken to consider the matter reflected how seriously Members took it. She informed them that the Committee felt strongly that the presentation should not be heard.
Mr Mthethwa interjected to state on record that the ANC felt there was no reason for the meeting to be adjourned, and that it was the Opposition who had felt strongly that the meeting be postponed.
Progress Report on Executive Undertakings made by the Minister of Transport
The Chairperson took Members through the report page by page.
Mr Zandamela asked for clarity on page 11 under ‘Observations and Key Findings’ under point 4.5, and wanted to know whether the 12.5 had been per province.
The Chairperson could not recall, and asked for that to be double checked.
The Chairperson referred to page 11 under ‘Observations and Key Findings,’ and asked Members to comment critically on those aspects, as the report would progress to the House.
The report was adopted to be tabled with the House. with an amendment on page three.
The minutes of 17 October were adopted with no amendments.
The meeting was adjourned.
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