In an emotionally-charged meeting that had been convened to discuss challenges at the State Information Technology Agency (SITA), the Minister of Communications and Digital Technology was strongly criticised for her absence. Led by the Chairperson, Members said there were governance issues that required political intervention, and certain questions could be answered only by the Minister.
Forty-five minutes before the virtual meeting, called to deliberate on SITA's 2019/20 annual report and financial statements, as well as irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure, the Minister had dispatched an apology letter via her parliamentary liaison officer, stating that she and the Deputy Minister would be unable to attend.
This development had incensed the Committee, who had labelled the behaviour by the Minister as "unacceptable." They questioned the “peculiar” appointment of a “caretaker executive” by the Minister, and highlighted the serious governance issues at the Agency that only the Minister and or her deputy could account for.
The meeting was terminated, with the Committee's administrative staff instructed to re-schedule it for a later date.
An official from the Office of the Auditor- General (AG) informed the Committee that the AG would log into the meeting at a later stage, as the AG had been in attendance at the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies’ (DCDT) budget vote meeting.
The Chairperson wondered aloud whether the budget vote was still in session, as some Committee Members had still to come from there as well.
The official said he thought that the Vote would have been finished by the time the meeting started.
The Chairperson said the meeting would proceed for the time being.
Chairperson's opening remarks
The Chairperson apologised for the delay, commenting that the Committee had met with the National Skills Fund (NSF) earlier in the day, and that it had already been a very long day. He said that Ms B van Minnen (DA) and Mr S Somyo (ANC) had been tasked to lead the inputs from the Committee. However, there had since been developments. Correspondence from the Committee to the State Information Technology Agency (SITA), as well as to the DCDT Ministry, had been sent on 10 May. Prior to this, the Committee had already received a briefing from the AG on the audited outcomes of SITA for the year under review.
He continued that at 17h15, 45 minutes before the meeting had commenced, he had received a communication that the Minister, Ms Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, had cancelled her appearance before the Committee, as she had to deliver the Budget Vote, and had been scheduled to appear at a Cabinet meeting the following day (19 May) as well. Apparently, she had to prepare a presentation to Cabinet.
He added that the Budget Vote had been dealt with, since there had been an agreement that the Minister would appear before the Committee straight after she had delivered the Budget Vote. He described the Minister’s actions as “quite deliberate,” given the time that she had chosen to inform the Committee of her non-attendance. The Minister’s attendance in the meeting had been required, since SITA faced a litany of problems that had been exacerbated and underpinned by the instability that permeated the entity.
A renewed mandate for the previous SITA Board, whose tenure had ended in December 2019, had not been issued by the Minister. She had then installed a caretaker executive at the end of January 2020, which had been tasked with the accounting officer role as well.
On 19 March 2020, the Minister had then appointed a new board of directors, which had comprised of the executive caretaker, a chief financial officer (CFO), as well as a deputy director-general from the DCDT.
The instability at SITA had impacted the entity’s ability to function properly and hampered service delivery. This had led to, and punctuated, a deteriorated governance crisis at the entity. Other consequential effects centred on the lack of, or improperly installed, fiduciary committees which were vital to good governance and the financial management at the entity. Two such committees, audit and risk, had been flagged by the AG for the year under review. The Minister had to account, especially since it had become clear that SITA had markedly regressed under the caretaker executive.
He said that for the 2017-18 financial year, two audit outcomes had been raised by the AG, and in 2018/19, four findings with an unqualified opinion had been received. For the year under review, 2019/20, there had been a mass regression, with several findings by the AG.
He had already advanced the reasons why the Minister and the Deputy Minister had to appear before the Committee. The political heads had to provide clarity on the caretaker executive’s role and the subsequent instability that had ensued in the wake of this appointment.
The Chairperson said he was unsure as to what type of discussion would emanate from the meeting in the absence of the political heads, especially since the apology from the Minister had come through her parliamentary liaison officer (PLO).
A visibly angry and irritated Chairperson labelled the Minister’s behaviour as ”unacceptable,” and accused her of having undermined the Committee.
He said that “ordinarily the Committee would proceed with the accounting officer, in the absence of the Minister.” However, the challenges at the SITA had been so great that it had called on the Minister to account.
The Chairperson reiterated that he had found the caretaker executive position "peculiar."
Ms Van Minnen echoed the sentiments of the Chairperson, and also labelled the Minister’s conduct as “unacceptable”. She also spoke of the enormous governance and leadership challenges that existed at SITA. She agreed with what the Chairperson had raised about the entity’s performance, which had been affected by the lack of leadership and bad governance. The media had also homed in on the relationship between the caretaker executive and the husband of the Minister.
Ms Van Minnen blasted the Minister for the political vacuum that had been created in the DCDT and the causal effects it had on SITA's progress. The Minister and her deputy had to face scrutiny and be held to account. Members should exercise oversight over the executive, she concluded.
Mr B Hadebe (ANC) said he had tried to digest what the Chairperson had said, since the situation characterised by the Chairperson painted a disturbing picture. Ordinarily, the meeting would continue in the absence of the Minister. He asked whether the Chairperson had had any follow-up communication with the Ministry about the way forward.
The Chairperson said that he had not done that, as the Minister’s letter had indicated that she would be would deliver the Budget Vote, and afterwards prepare for a presentation that she had to present to Cabinet the following day. The Deputy Minister had undertaken a visit to the Free State.
Mr M Dirks (ANC) said that in Mr Somyo’s absence, he did not want to comment, since the former had been tasked by the Committee to lead the engagement with SITA.
Ms V Mente (EFF) wanted to know when the letter had been sent to the Minister.
The Chairperson replied that the letter had been sent on 10 May.
Ms Mente noted that in that case, she found the action by the Minister unacceptable, and did not take kindly to it. She said the Minister’s “undermining attitude” did not bode well. The dates for the Budget Votes had been determined three weeks ago. Why had she agreed when she knew she had a Cabinet meeting on the Wednesday?
The Chairperson proposed that the meeting be suspended and asked the table staff to identify new dates for a follow-up meeting.
He said that what had really irritated him had been the lack of respect shown towards Parliament. Government departments had been plagued by a litany of cases that involved mismanagement and bad governance.
He took issue with the notion that there had to be an adversarial relationship between Parliament and the Executive, when the two were different branches of the same government. “It smacked of arrogance and self-importance, this last-minute behaviour,” he commented angrily. He reiterated that he had found the Minister’s conduct unacceptable, and that “he could not take it anymore,” as the Committee could have scheduled another entity.
He conceded that he was busy preaching to the converted, as Members had all been in attendance and the communication to the Minister’s office had been sent out in a timeous fashion.
He asked the Committee staff to look at alternative dates, and stressed the burden that this placed on the Committee, given the short time available in the term. Other considerations by Members had to be taken into account. It would not be easy to navigate, given the time constraints. It seemed to him as if Parliament did not matter.
Mr Somyo then indicated his presence in the meeting.
The Chairperson briefed Mr Somyo on what had transpired, and asked for his guidance and inputs. He lamented the lack of mutual respect, and recounted that 45 minutes before the start of the meeting, the Minister, through the PLO, had communicated that she would not be in attendance. He added that he wanted to finalise matters in relation to the SITA’s leadership, before the Committee could proceed.
Mr Somyo said that in the absence of the executive authority, as far as SITA had been concerned, only the Minister and her deputy could account from a political point of view. Serious governance issues had been detected at the entity. He asked whether the acting CEO and the board had been in attendance.
The Chairperson replied that everyone had signed into the meeting, except the political heads.
Mr Somyo said that maybe the Committee should not be “angry” with everyone, since only the Minister and the deputy had indicated their unavailability. He proposed that the Committee should explore alternative dates for the Executive to come and account.
He added that certain questions could be answered only by the Minister, especially on governance issues. Furthermore, she also seemed to had a hand in the appointment of the caretaker executive.
The Chairperson commented that it appeared that Mr Somyo agreed with his assessment on the Minister's presence in the meeting.
A postponement would also allow Members more time to prepare for the engagement. The Minister had to explain why a Board had not yet been constituted. The peculiar caretaker executive arrangement had to be interrogated as well. The Committee had to establish whether a legal basis for such an appointment had existed.
The procedural staff then proposed 26 May at 9h30 as an alternative date for the meeting.
Mr Dirks responded that he had been scheduled to appear in court on that date.
The Chairperson took a decision that the date stood, and that consultations would continue among Members before he issued a communiqué on the date.
At this juncture, Ms Nonkqubela Jordan-Dyani, Acting Director-General of DCDT, asked whether she could address the Committee. She said the Minister would in actual fact appear before the Committee at 7 p.m. She and her deputy had been busy fielding questions from the media.
The Chairperson threw cold water on the comments that had been made by Ms Jordan-Dyani. "That horse had bolted," a visibly exasperated Chairperson ruled.
Ms Jordan-Dyani said that she had raised her hand continuously. She also stated that 26 May fell on a Tuesday, which was a day that had been reserved for Cabinet.
The Chairperson, in a very decisive tone, indicated his extreme irritation with Ms Jordan-Dyani. He cautioned her to accept the decision, and not agitate further. He stressed that Parliament's time also mattered.
He signalled that the meeting had reached its logical conclusion.
He adjourned the meeting.
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