The Committee met to consider the 8 January 2021 letter from the President about the deployment of 2 122 members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in support of other government departments in the fight against Covid-19 from 29 December 2020 to 31 January 2021.
Members were not pleased that the letter was received late for the Committee’s consideration and that the Committee was not swiftly convened to approve the deployment. Members emphasized that this notification has to be done promptly by the President; otherwise the Committee is merely playing a rubber stamp role. Section 201 of the Constitution was very clear on the timeframes within which the Committee must be informed about the deployment of the Defence Force. There were no substantive objections to the deployment itself by the Committee. Members requested an expenditure report for the R95.6 million deployment budget and the Chairpersons would convey this request to the Ministry.
The Committee also adopted its 2020 Annual Report and First Term Programme.
Request for SANDF deployment approval
Co-Chairperson Mr C Xaba (ANC) took Members through the letter which stated that the SANDF deployment is intended to preserve life, health and property in emergency or humanitarian relief operations in support of government departments and in cooperation with the South African Police Service, to prevent crime and enforce restrictions under the adjusted Level 3 lockdown. He noted that the deployment terminated on 31 January 2021 – it was only for one month, from 29 December 2020 to 31 January 2021. The projected expenditure was R95.6 million.
Mr D Ryder (DA; Gauteng) said that he found it highly problematic that the Committee was dealing with this matter only today, because its approval is long overdue. The period that the SANDF deployment covers has already ended and now Members are required only to rubber stamp the letter. The Committee was not established to just rubber stamp SANDF deployment letters from the President. He read out paragraph 201(4) of the Constitution, saying it clearly indicates that if Parliament does not sit within seven days after the Defence Force is deployed, the President must provide the information to the appropriate Committee. This Committee must be notified. This indicates that there is urgency to us sitting and deliberating on these letters. For Members to sit and deliberate on this now makes the Committee a laughing stock. This Committee can sit at any time – it does not need to wait for an ordinary Committee meeting to deliberate on this particular matter.
The next time the President issues one of these letters, the Committee must convene urgently. Now, it is a waste of time rubber stamping this letter.
Mr M Shelembe (DA) said that the Committee was only informed on what will be spent on the SANDF deployment but no report is submitted to the Committee detailing how the money was spent. How can the Committee get the information that will convince Members that the R95.6 million was indeed spent for the intended purpose for the 2 000 troops? Members need to be brought into confidence on how the money was spent. It makes it difficult for Members to attest to this as insufficient detail is provided. From whose budget did the R95.6 million come? Is the budget from the Presidency or the Defence Department?
Mr K Motsamai (EFF) agreed with Mr Ryder and Mr Shelembe and suggested that the letter be referred back to the Minister and the Department for them to return and give a full account.
Mr S Marais (DA) agreed with the previous speakers and emphasized the point that the Committee should not be rubber stamping these letters. The letter from the President is dated 8 January but the deployment happened from 29 December. The President informed Parliament 10 days from deployment and this was not constitutional. The people advising the President do not seem to be taking Parliament seriously.
The Constitution does not state that the budget must be explained to the Committee.
This may not be the Minister’s fault but the President. The Committee has deliberated on the fact that there may not be a second deployment necessary.
Mr T Mmutle (ANC) said that his interpretation of Section 201 is that it compels the President to inform Parliament about the details of deployment, such as the number of troops, area, the period and the cost, amongst others. This has been done. The only challenge is that the Committee could not convene urgently to acknowledge this letter on time. Be that as it may, he proposed that the letter was noted because there was nothing stopping the Committee from acknowledging it. After noting the letter, the Committee then has an oversight role to ascertain if the monies allocated for the deployment were utilised for the intended purpose. Even if the Committee was informed late and dealt with the letter late – in retrospect it does not take away the role of the Committee. Perhaps, these matters can be raised when the Minister comes to the Committee.
Ms N Nkosi (ANC) agreed with Mr Mmutle that the letter should be noted for now and the Committee must invite the Office of Presidency to address the concerns that Members had.
Co-Chairperson Mr N Nchabeleng (ANC; Limpopo) said that there was nothing stopping the Committee from sending written questions about these concerns to the Ministry and requesting written responses. Further questions could be addressed at the next meeting when the Ministry is present.
Co-Chairperson Xaba said that the SANDF deployment took place during recess. Everyone had retired to their villages and there was no one around. However, he agreed with the comment that this should have been dealt with urgently when Parliament resumed. The period has already expired and Parliament returned this week. Members can make a resolution now that the Committee convene at any time when required, even during recess. He had felt that as Members were on recess, this matter could be deliberated when Parliament convenes.
On the expenditure of the deployment allocation, the Committee has received an expenditure report from the first Covid-19 deployment. This was provided yesterday by the Auditor General, so it has been audited. Members were now in a position to deliberate on that report because it is audited expenditure.
The matter of informing Parliament timeously on the Defence Force deployment had been raised before. Legal opinion was sought on this drafted in June 2003 by Advocates Vassen and Jenkins. This addressed what Members were raising. They were requested to comment on the time period within which the President must inform Parliament after authorising the deployment of the Defence Force in fulfilment of an international obligation. This may well refer to a domestic deployment as well. The two advocates were also requested to advise that if Parliament was not informed timeously, if that would render the expenditure unauthorised. The conclusion was that if the President failed to inform Parliament timeously or due to unreasonable delay – at the moment there is insufficient evidence that it was unreasonable delay, the expenditure of the deployment would not be rendered unauthorised.
Members need to bear in mind that there were public holidays and weekends that perhaps should be taken into consideration when determining "unreasonable delay". Secondly, the President is required to inform Parliament promptly. ‘Promptly’ was interpreted by legal advisors to mean ‘without unreasonable delay’. If Members sought more clarity on this matter, the Committee can write to the legal advisors for clarity.
Co-Chairperson Xaba suggested that the Committee note the letter for now or abandon the deliberation and entertain the letter when the Minister is present. However, continuing would not bear any fruitful deliberations because it is after the fact.
Mr Motsamai lamented the absence of the Minister and Deputy Minister because Members were now deliberating on matters that required their presence.
Mr Marais said that Members had no choice but to accept the letter now. The Committee must communicate the protocol explaining the Committee’s position on the oversight role of the Committee. We need to work as a team.
Mr Ryder disagreed with the legal opinion cited by the Chairperson. The Constitution says that the President must inform Parliament ‘promptly’ – in the dictionary, ‘promptly’ is defined as ‘swiftly, without delay’. The President does not have seven days to inform the Committee, he must inform the Committee ‘promptly’ if Parliament does not sit within seven days.
The Committee has an oversight to play and he objected to the fact that the Committee was only noting the letter. It must make a fuss of this matter to the President.
Co-Chairperson Xaba said that he would convey the concerns of the Members to the Department. He asked if Members would have had an objection to the deployment of the Defence Force.
Members did not respond to this and he assumed that there were no objections to the deployment of the Defence Force. This deployment was part of the government’s effort to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Chairperson took Members through the Committee’s programme.
The Committee’s programme was adopted without changes or objections.
Committee 2020 Annual Report
Mr Peter Daniels, Committee Content Advisor, took Members through the Report. Its headings included Key Highlights; Committee Programme; Letters from the President; Committee 2020 Focus Areas; Key Focus Areas for Future Work; Key Challenges; and Recommendations.
Members were generally pleased with the detail of the Report and commended the Committee support team for presenting such a comprehensive report.
There were no objections or substantive amendments and the Report was adopted.
The 19 November 2020 minutes were considered and adopted.
The meeting was adjourned.
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