The Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs met on a virtual platform to receive a briefing from the Minister and the Department of Home Affairs on the landing of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) President and his entourage of 500 at the Bulembu Airport in the Eastern Cape.
The Minister insisted that everything had been above board and all laws had been complied with. He pointed out the various economic benefits this private visit brought with it, as the UAE President promised to invest more than $10 billion (R185 billion) in energy, oil, economic infrastructure, tourism, agriculture and other sectors of the economy. He further assured the Committee that the Office of the Public Protector was investigating the matter following a complaint lodged by a Member of Parliament (MP) on the matter.
After hearing the Department’s explanation on the issue, some Members were happy to defer their oversight responsibilities to the Public Protector, but others wanted more documentary proof and demanded that the Minister provide it to the Committee.
Three types of documents were requested by some Members. The first was the note verbale, the second was the original application that the DHA had received from the Premier of the Eastern Cape, and the last was the visa and passport information of those who had accompanied the President to the Republic. A Member publicly stated on the platform that he suspected there had been “shenanigans” around the visa process.
Among other concerns which some Members raised were the interpretation of the Border Management Authority(BMA) Act, the distinction between a state and a private visit, and whether a private visit made by a head of state should warrant that he should receive all the protocols and privileges that would normally be accorded to during a state visit. Other issues raised were the types of visas given to the entourage staff, and the rationale behind using Bulembu Airport instead of the airport in Port Elizabeth, which was much closer to the President’s intended destination.
Those Members who preferred to let the investigation process unfold expressed confidence in the Public Protector’s Office, and warned their colleagues of potential overreaching in intervening in the administrative affairs of the executive. Some of them also suggested that the Committee should rather engage with the Department and other involved departments in a closed meeting, as some information, such as people’s visa information, passport numbers, etc. should not be released to the public.
Some Members were uncertain of the investment benefits, as the President had brought everything from overseas to the country and thus had not benefited the South African tourism sector. There was a suggestion that this trip might have been for the personal enrichment of the UAE ruler and the Premier of the Eastern Cape. There was also a complaint about the lack of a government notice on this matter, with a view that the matter should have been published in the Government Gazette and be available for public comments for a period of no less than 30 days.
The Chairperson said this was a special Portfolio Committee meeting for Members to interact with the ministry on the issues surrounding the landing of the President of the United Arab Emirates and the entourage. The Committee would be interacting with the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and the Border Management Authority (BMA).
Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, Minister of Home Affairs, read the given explanation provided by the Department of Home Affairs. The document had been provided to the Committee.
The Minister received an application on 7 April from the Premier of the Eastern Cape, with all supporting documentation, including diplomatic communications between South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. Following due consideration and taking due regard to Section 9 (a) of the Immigration Act, read with regulation 8 of the immigration regulations; he had designated Bulembu Airport as a place of entry and exit.
Mr Y Tetyana (EFF) noted and highlighted the limited amount of information the Department gave. The supporting document provided by the Department included only what Members already had access to, such as the Border Management Authority (BMA) Act, the Immigration Act, and the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation. However, he did not believe that the documents provided by the Department would be sufficient for Members to understand the whole issue, as those documents were already available in the public domain.
The Chairperson noted his comment, and asked the Minister to explain his understanding of “supporting documents”.
The Minister responded that it meant note verbale, as it was diplomatic communication between two countries that possessed the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), to which Members could easily have access. He, as the Minister of Home Affairs, was not in a position to release that document. Also, he understood that it was the list of people in that entourage who had been given visas and their passport numbers, which Members wanted access to. Since the DHA was the custodian of people’s information, he could not give the information on this platform, since it was a public platform. However, he would be willing to release such information to the Committee, as they were entitled to it. Also, he was aware that the Committee might want to see the goods and customs list, and clarified that that would be the domain of the South African Revenue Service (SARS) which was not in the Department’s domain, and suggested the Committee should request r that list from SARS. Lastly, he indicated that all the documents he had referred to so far had been submitted to the Public Protector, as it was the Department’s understanding that the matter had been referred to the Public Protector.
The Chairperson reminded the ministry and the Committee that the last meeting had touched upon the subject of the interrelated departments that were also involved in the matter, such as SARS and DIRCO. He then invited Members to engage with the Department.
Ms M Molekwa (ANC) suggested to her colleagues that Members should allow the investigation to unfold. Once that process was concluded, then the Office of the Public Protector would inform the Committee about the investigation details.
Mr K Pillay (ANC) pointed out that it may not be necessary to release the identity or announce every head of state visiting the country for security reasons. He was satisfied with the Minister’s explanation, and emphasised that the country should welcome every visit that would bring positive investment into the country.
Mr A Roos (DA) highlighted s33 of the BMA Act, which required the Minister to give notice in the Gazette for public approval, not less than 30 days prior to approval. He had not seen anything giving exceptions to such circumstances. The Committee was also unaware that such an incident had occurred. He thus asked the Minister if the visit was published in the Government Gazette and, if so, what the Gazette number was. He noted the Minister’s undertone, suggesting that people had gone overboard, but he was of the view that should all those processes in law be followed, such a situation could have been avoided.
He noted various media reports which mentioned that the President of the UAE had brought over 300 workers along to the country. He asked the Minister whether those workers had been given work permits or tourist permits. He wanted to know how those workers could come to the country and perform work related to tourism in this country. He commented that the Minister’s understanding on the issue was important, as it showed how such situations would be handled in the future.
Mr Tetyana reiterated the issue of the supporting documents on the basis of the Minister’s presentation. He specifically referred to page 2 of the presentation, which stated that the Minister had received an application. Under normal circumstances, the application should be attached, whereas Members could not see that application. This constrained Members’ understanding of the issue and thus limited their ability to engage the issue fairly. The Chicago Convention emphasises that abuse of certain privileges could threaten national security. He outlined the documents that had not been provided to the Committee:
- The first correspondence between the UAE and the Eastern Cape government;
- The application that was submitted to the DHA; and
- Visa applications ,as the Committee was told that 680 people had arrived on that day.
Given the lack of information, he found it very difficult to assess the matter objectively. He reiterated the distinction in the Chicago Convention which distinguishes state visits from private visits. The Committee was told that military aircraft had accompanied that entourage, which meant that the visit was not private. This could mean that there could be a violation of protocol.
He also noted that Bulembu Airport was 187 km from where the President of Abu Dhabi was heading. He questioned why the plane had not landed in Port Elizabeth (PE), where it was much closer as it would be only 54 km from his intended destination, and it would have been much easier for all the security checks, etc.
He therefore reiterated the importance of the Department submitting all the necessary information before Members could make a sound assessment of the situation.
Ms L van der Merwe (IFP) commented that the briefing that Members had just received was no different from the press briefing the Department had done with the media. She fully agreed with Mr Tetyana on the importance of the supporting documents. The insufficient documents limited Members’ engagement and oversight role. She was also certain that once all the documents had been submitted to the Public Protector, they would be available to this Committee for further scrutiny.
She reiterated Mr Roos’s point on the public notice point. Considering that the engagement between the two countries had taken place in December 2022 and the formal application was made in March this year, it meant that the public notice could still have been published. If that process had not been followed, why not?
She did understand the rationale for the special treatment for this royal family due to the investment potential for the province and to tourism, but it had been noted that the royal family had brought their own staff, food, entertainers, furniture, fuel, cars -- and even gym equipment. Apart from him upgrading the airport for his own benefit for landing, she really did not see how the Eastern Cape would benefit from such an arrangement, or any job creation that could come out of this. She thus asked the Minister whether this trip was to the benefit of the people of the Eastern Cape or to the benefit of the Premier of that province, who was now a friend of the ruling family in Dubai.
She remarked that the new dawn had promised the country openness, transparency and accountability, but the public had seen very little of that. She asked the Department if it had issued a notice in the Government Gazette or a press statement to say that the country was receiving the ruling family of the UAE, and informing the arrival and departure dates, and that all protocols and laws would be adhered to. This whole debacle that the Minister described as mischievous could have been avoided. She said that there were lessons to be learnt for the future.
Ms A Khanyile (DA) agreed with Mr Tetyana’s view on the importance of having all the documents for Members to fully grasp the issue.
She stressed that the reason Members had requested all the documents for that application was because they needed to understand on what basis the Minister had made his decision. So far, the Committee did not have that information.
She echoed Mr Roos’s question and emphasised that the Minister should publish that notice in the Government Gazette for the public to comment on for a period of 30 days. She could not find that notice, and since the Minister had indicated that the Department had published it, she wanted the Minister to furnish the Committee with the Gazette number.
She also wanted to know the details of those people who had come with the UAE president. For instance, she wanted to know when those visas were applied for, and when they were approved. She was aware that the Department had a backlog that stretched back to 2016. However, it looked like the special treatment given to this President had suddenly boosted the Department’s capacity to process a certain number of visas, of which Members were unaware. Initially, she thought it was 500 visas, but then she was told by the Minister that the UAE was exempted from visas to come to South Africa. The Committee was very much aware of the lack of capacity, since it had even been on an oversight trip to the Department due to their concern for its immigration service and officials not responding to their emails. She thus wanted to know where the Department got its additional capacity from.
She agreed with Mr Tetyana’s point about the different distances. Since it would be much closer for this entourage to land in PE, why had they landed at Bulembu airport?
Ms T Legwase (ANC) noted that most of her colleagues’ questions were directed at the accompanying people’s visas. She would not dwell on those questions, since those questions had been asked. She suggested a closed joint meeting with all the departments involved and for the Committee to thoroughly engage on the issue so that Members could also access certain documents. From where she was sitting, she was interested to know how many visas had been issued and which types had been issued for every person in that entourage. She highlighted the Minister’s responsibility to be accountable to the Committee.
Concerning Ms Khanyile’s remark about the distances, she did not believe that the Minister of Home Affairs was in a position to respond to that type of question. A joint meeting with all governmental departments involved would be a better option, to get clarity on all those questions which Members had.
Adv B Bongo (ANC) emphasised the importance of the investment for the rural province of the Eastern Cape and its people, as well as for the people of the country. As Members of Parliament (MPs), the Committee should regard that with a positive note. He described the remark around 54 km versus 187 km not a valid concern, since it was an administrative issue. He believed that an investment should be a sufficient cause. There was an investment, and the Eastern Cape government wanted to use the Bulembu airport as an investment opportunity and to upgrade it. Questioning why they were not landing in PE was almost similar to making decisions on behalf of the Eastern Cape. In his view, it was as if the Committee was overreaching its power.
He pointed out that the Office of the Public Protector was empowered to gain and access any type of document that Members wanted to see. Hence, he was satisfied and felt assured that the matter would be resolved.
Adv Bongo emphasised that South Africa had signed many protocols and international conventions that bind the country to how it treats rulers and heads of state. He disagreed with some Members’ requests that the Committee should want a list of the individuals that had landed. He questioned what they were going to do with that list. He described it as overreaching. If the Minister said all the processes had been followed, it should be sufficient.
Ms Khanyile raised a point of order. She highlighted that Members of the Committee had a responsibility to hold the executive accountable, and all the questions raised on this platform were directed at the Minister and his Department. She also believed that the Minister had the capability to answer all those questions. She pointed out that Adv Bongo did not have a right to dictate to Committee Members what questions to ask. If he did not have any questions to ask, he spoke for his party. She would understand if Adv Bongo’s political party was happy with the whole process, but he did not have the right to dictate to other Committee Members which questions they should or should not ask. She thus asked the Chairperson to rule on this matter.
Mr Pillay interjected, and said it was not a point of order.
The Chairperson explained that Adv Bongo was contributing to his cause and was in no way dictating to other Members how they must raise the issue. Should there be areas where Members felt unclear about, he would give them an opportunity to make follow-up questions.
Mr Tetyana interjected, and said that Adv Bongo was just relying on newspapers, as there were no real investments in the Eastern Cape. He said Adv Bongo did not have a right to question whether Members should be asking about the kilometre difference or not.
The Chairperson warned Mr Tetyana that he would be given an opportunity to do his follow-up questions. His manner was not the way to conduct a committee meeting. He then instructed Adv Bongo to proceed.
Adv Bongo suggested that the Committee should not have another meeting on this issue, since the matter was going to be sufficiently dealt with by the Public Protector’s report. Also, it would be a breach of protocol and security should all information get out, since strict rules of state security govern some of the information. He did not think that giving special treatment to a head of state was wrong. The special treatment was an administrative issue and the Committee’s responsibility was to ensure adherence to the law. However, oversight did not equate to overreach and demands to get security-related documents. He highlighted that the DHA was the custodian of people’s information, and thus could not give more information, as it would otherwise be a security breach.
Adv Bongo described Ms Khanyile’s remark about the alleged personal enrichment of the Premier of the Eastern Cape as out of order, mischievous and frowned upon, because the Bulembu Airport had not been in a working condition for some time. This visit restored it to its working condition, which was already a benefit for the people of this country.
He was certain of the investment that had come to the country, as the fact that a ruler of such stature had decided to come to South Africa was already an investment and a positive signal to other heads of state that South Africa was a safe place to visit. He criticised the insinuation of some Members, who suggested that the UAE President should not have brought his personal attendants, as this was the standard practice of all heads of state, including the South African President when he visited overseas.
The Chairperson asked the Minister if he had received a notice from the Public Protector on any matter in relation to the issue for the Department or for the BMA to respond.
Minister Motsoaledi confirmed that the Department had not received any communication from the Public Protector’s Office. However, the Office had confirmed formally that it had received a complaint from an MP, and an investigation was underway.
The Minister was aware that the Premier of the Eastern Cape had appeared in front of a committee consisting of various political parties known as the portfolio committee overseeing the Premier’s Office. The items under investigation included the investment amount, as well as the trip as well. He suggested the Committee should get its desired information directly from that committee.
He clarified that his Department’s role was to facilitate visits and entries. His Department could not publish such information. He revealed that President Ramaphosa had visited the UAE in 2018, during which the President of the UAE had pledged US$10 billion which would be primarily spent in the Eastern Cape in the energy, oil and tourism sectors. A few days prior to the arrival of the President of the UAE, the Minister of Economic Development of the UAE had met with South Africa's Minister of Energy, Minister of Trade and Industry, and Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, etc. During the investment summit with President Ramaphosa, the South African ambassador to the UAE was present at that conference and requested a meeting with himself to brief him on the details of this investment in the Eastern Cape. The importance of that investment was highlighted during that briefing.
Minister Motsoaledi partly agreed with Ms Khanyile and Mr Roos on the laws that should have applied, and attributed the issue to the interpretation of laws. He believed that such matters should be left to the Public Protector. He explained that there were two pieces of legislation governing people’s entries in this area -- the Immigration Act and the BMA Act. As to which one should be used, the first principle of correct application of the statute was to look at the objectives. He corrected Members that it was s30, and not s33 of the BMA Act. That section applied only if an additional land, air or sea port of entry was to be added, or one of them was to be deducted in the country. Hence, he did not think there was a need to Gazette such a notice. He questioned Members if they could imagine if someone such as a head of state, or someone who looked for medical care, or someone unable to enter through the designated entry, would now need the government to gazette a port of entry for the 30-day public comment period before they could enter. If that was the case, he did not think the country would attract any investment. It was practically impossible. He further indicated to Ms Van der Merwe that his Department did not know about the designated port of entry back in December last year, so it was not like what she had suggested -- that the Department could have slotted in the public comment period. However, should the Department have made an error in interpreting the law, it should be left to be determined by the Public Protector.
On the issue of work permits, he clarified that the DHA issued work permits if they were doing some work for a company, an institution or some people in South Africa. It did not give work permits if they accompanied staff such as helpers, cleaners, nannies, etc. because they were not doing paid work in South Africa. Those accompanying staff were given tourist visas.
The Minister referred to page 2 of the report, which indicates what the application states. He suggested the Committee submit a list of the documents it had requested, and then he would have to determine which documents he could show to the Committee. The report as provided was the application as quoted, instead of providing the Committee with the actual application. He emphatically said that he was not lying and was truthful on this platform. Should he lie, the Public Protector would also be able to pick it up.
On the distinction between public and private visits, the Minister said he understood that the Chicago Convention stated that state aircrafts were exempted from certain practices and protocols demanded of civilian aircrafts, provided that they landed in army ports of entry. If an aircraft of a head of state landed at Waterkloof, which was an army base, the DHA had nothing to do with it unless there was a civilian plane also landing there that required immigration checks. Also, the chairperson of the Civil Aviation Authority had indicated that the Chicago Convention stipulated that should a state aircraft decide to land in a civilian area, then it was up to them to ensure that the landing area had certain security features. Since Bulembu airport was a civilian airport, it was the UAE state aircraft’s responsibility to ensure that the airport was renovated to meet the security feature requirements at their own cost. He emphasised that the Chicago Convention was being adhered to in its entirety.
Minister Motsoaledi explained to the Committee that when the arrangements were made between the UAE and the South African government, there were two airports which the UAE president could have entered. One was OR Tambo airport, Cape Town International Airport, and King Shaka International Airport. The Gqeberha airport was the UAE President’s first choice, and the assessment later showed that the runway at that airport was too small for the type of state aircraft the UAE President was using. The UAE President was then informed that none of the airports in the Eastern Cape was able to allow landing for such an aircraft. That was when the Bulembu airport was identified as being suitable for the landing in terms of the runway. However, a few finishing touches would need to be fixed before the landing, which was why the ruler was willing to do the renovation at their own cost. He suggested that the Premier would be in a better position to provide more details about what renovations had been done to that airport.
He said that the most important document, in this case, was note verbale, which was in possession of DIRCO. He and his Department could not release the document. He was certain that DIRCO would release that document to the Committee if it requested it.
Minister Motsaledi also indicated that he had already quoted key information about the application in the report, which was why the application was not being attached. He had quoted the application verbatim.
The Minister asked the Committee to be cautious about opening up a precedent, where personal information could be made available to other people. The DHA had all the information about Members’ details -- ID number, family members, etc. The National Population Register (NPR) could even draw a family tree. However, he questioned if anyone should decide to access such information. The DHA also had a visa adjudication system which was a database that had information of all people who had entered the country. Given that nuanced information, he questioned whether it was right or legal to give such information if someone demanded access to it. He asked Members to be cool, calm and collected when they decided on this matter. He similarly mentioned the matter of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), where the Committee was also of the view that the DHA was only allowed to give redacted information to the IEC as an example to highlight the importance of safekeeping personal information. He assured the Committee that the Department had the passport numbers of all the entourage entering the country. However, it would provide such information to the Public Protector upon request.
The Minister indicated to Mr Tetyana that the Department was not under any threat. The Ministry of Police had been present when the entourage landed, and the entourage was subjected to all the laws in the country. As a result, some of their weapons were not allowed into the country.
The Minister indicated that he was not privy to all the details about the investment amount. He referred the Committee to the Premier of the Eastern Cape and the portfolio committee he had referred to earlier. He suggested that MPs on this Committee should talk to their Eastern Cape provincial legislature colleagues about the issue. He was of no doubt that the investment value of the UAE had been quite huge, and he was also aware that the UAE President had donated upon departure. That amount was independent of the investment which they had made.
The Minister responded to the Committee that the DHA never issued any statement about visits unless that visit was about a physical visit to Home Affairs offices. It was the responsibility of the line department to make such announcements.
He clarified to Ms Khanyile that the DHA had never lacked capacity to issue tourist visas, as the tourism in the country would have collapsed. The Department did not have any backlog in issuing corporate visas, because it had a corporate account unit. For instance, after last year’s investment summit, where 19 companies had pledged to invest in South Africa, 3 090 corporate visas were issued to them in less than four months. The backlog was on other types of visas, such as spousal and relative visas. The backlog had been exacerbated during the COVID-19 lockdown period. When the lockdown period ended last year, the DHA had approx. 97 000 applications for various types of visas, and the Department had dealt with 43 000 of them. He assured the Committee that when a visa was for investment, the Department went out of the way to ensure a timeous turnaround time.
He reminded the Committee that there was a time when visa adjudication was centralised in the Department due to the detection of irregularities in visa issuance in missions abroad. That decision also contributed to the backlog. Furthermore, the visas for the entourage were issued in the South African mission in Abu Dhabi, and the DHA head office had not been involved. He informed the Committee that it had recently trained 62 people who were due to assess all visas coming from those missions, some even being posted at missions. The Department had recently recruited 18 legally trained people to assist in adjudicating business visas, as it was a complicated matter.
The Chairperson highlighted some issues. Firstly, he reminded Members and the officials of their oaths. The understanding was that the Committee held the executive to account. He reaffirmed the authority of Committee Members to engage on subject matters which related to this portfolio. Secondly, he appreciated the Minister and the Deputy Minister’s engagement with the Committee, and for always committing to responding to the Members’ questions. The Office of the Public Protector was also investigating the matter. On the interpretation of the law, the Committee also had its own parliamentary legal services for further consultation on legal opinions.
He noted the suggestion put forward by Ms Legwase that a closed meeting might be more appropriate. However, the matter at hand had drawn interest from the public. He fully agreed that should the documents be available to Members, and that there were issues to be discussed, the Committee would still request the Department to come to account.
The Chairperson said there were other portfolio committees which were also involved in this process, and thus this Committee should allow those committees to interact in the process.
The Committee had noted the investment process. This Committee also had the authority to invite the Premier, the provincial government, and the provincial legislature to come and account on certain matters.
Ms van der Merwe agreed with some of the sentiments that the Chairperson had raised, so she agreed that the Committee should wait for the Public Protector’s report on the investigation.
Her signal was lost and the Chairperson decided to move to the next speaker, Ms Legwase.
Ms Legwase fully agreed with the Chairperson’s view.
Ms Khanyile also agreed with the Chairperson’s view and approach to dealing with the matter. She noted the Minister’s statement about him not receiving any formal notification from the Public Protector’s Office about the investigation, and that he had learnt about it only from the media. If the Public Protector did not investigate this matter and the Committee also left the matter as it was, it would mean that the meeting today was not fruitful. She thus asked the Minister to give an indication of when the outstanding supporting documents would be submitted to the Committee. After Members had gone through those documents, they could then decide if another meeting would be necessary to deal with the matter. The Chairperson could also guide Members on how to conduct a joint meeting with other committees and Departments to deal with the matter.
Mr Tetyana insisted Adv Bongo should withdraw his grandstanding words when Members were interrogating the Department, since those concepts and words he had used should not be used in the Committee context. He said that Adv Bongo should not attempt to belittle Members’ inputs. He urged the Chairperson to ask Adv Bongo to withdraw his words.
Mr Tetyana was uncertain whether he should engage with Mr Bongo as a Members of the Committee, or as a representative of the Department. The comparison between the Obama visit and this UAE visit was unfounded. Obama was on a state visit, whereas the UAE was making a private visit. The Committee did not have any issue with state visits, including the one of the UAE. The Committee’s issue was that the Department was not providing the documents it wanted to see. The Minister had quoted the application, whereas he wanted the application itself. Just as the Minister had said Members might not trust him, he asked the Minister if he mistrusted the Members. Was there any information that Members should not see by a certain piece of legislation? The reason Members had enquired about the visa applications of the entourage was because they had good reason to believe that there were some "shenanigans" going on in relation to the visit of the President of the UAE. Quoting the application was insufficient.
Mr Tetyana had noted a number of inconsistencies in the Minister’s speech. Although he had stated to the Committee that he was not in a position to respond to any questions outside of his portfolio, which was Home Affairs, he commented that the Minister had spent more than five minutes talking about investment. He informed the Minister that Committee Members were in communication with their colleagues in the Eastern Cape Legislature, and were kept informed of such information, but they chose not to mention such information in this Committee because they wanted to limit the scope of their work to within Home Affairs without overreaching.
He therefore agreed with the Chairperson’s view, to wait for the Minister to provide the Committee with such supporting documents. If there was a legal issue pertaining to some of those attachments, the Committee could get the legal opinion on its own.
Mr Pillay endorsed the Chairperson’s view and guidance on how to deal with this matter. He emphasised that the Committee must not overstep its role of oversight.
He asked Members if they had requested full documents from the Minister, as the Minister would otherwise have been prepared. However, if those documents had not been requested, then they would not be presented today.
He cautioned Committee Members from adopting a selective approach in dealing with similar matters. Towards the latter part of last year, the Premier of the Western Cape talked about billions of rands of investment made in the province on social media when a German delegation came to visit. He thus asked Members if a request for the information of the delegation that had visited the Western Cape had been asked for by those very same Members. He emphasised to them that should South Africa treat other heads of state in the manner that they had suggested, then there would be no investment in the country. He cautioned that South Africa might be pushing away investments by doing so.
Ms van der Merwe supported the Chairperson’s comments and his suggestion on the way forward. She would await the supporting documents, as well as for the process of the Public Protector’s investigation to unfold. As colleagues, she cautioned Members from answering each other’s questions. As Members represented different constituencies, any question being asked in the meeting was relevant.
She highlighted that should the visit have been planned accordingly, then publishing it in the Government Gazette should have been the government’s, if not the Minister’s, responsibility and it would have avoided a lot of media speculation and provided much needed certainty to the nation.
Ms van der Merwe disagreed over the investment the UAE had brought in from the trip. The ruler had brought all the things he could have purchased from the local economy, so the Committee needed to assess whether the investment warranted such special treatment.
Mr Roos agreed with the Chairperson’s proposed way forward, and fully supported the additional proposals made by his colleague, Ms Khanyile.
Mr Roos wanted the Minister to provide more clarity on the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), as he had referred to it when mentioning the request for access to certain information. He highlighted the preamble and s33(b) of the Act, which focused on the free flow of information when the constitutional values of democracy and openness were at stake. His view was that according to the POPIA Act, it was entirely appropriate for Members to request such personal information from the DHA in this specific context.
He referred to the Minister’s response on the interpretation of statutes. He indicated that one of the golden rules was that, where possible, the word should be given the meaning that it had in its ordinary usage. He struggled to understand how there could be any misinterpretation of s33 of the BMA Act. He asked the Minister if he had received a legal opinion on this clause, since the head of state was visiting the country personally and the “must” requirement in the clause was no longer applicable, or if the Minister had simply interpreted the clause himself. Similar to the Gupta issue, the South African government had received a note verbale from the UAE embassy on 6 April confirming that the Guptas had acquired the citizenship of Vanuatu, which would have made them lose their South African citizenship, despite the Minister claiming otherwise. The Committee could not allow the executive to perpetuate this narrative of “because I interpret the law like this, which is why I did not follow a particular statute.” The UAE visit was not a state visit. The country needed such processes to be clarified to prevent certain situations from happening in future. For instance, if Vladimir Putin landed in South Africa in a secret location, and nobody knew that he had landed and left with an entourage, the public had a right to know that. He emphasised the importance of the correct interpretation of s33 of the BMA Act, and said it should be crystal clear.
Adv Bongo said he accepted the proposal the Chairperson had put forward on this matter. He asked Members to be patient, and to allow the investigation of the Public Protector’s Office to unfold.
He refuted Mr Tetyana’s claim that he was working as a representative of the DHA. However, he would not remain silent if Members of the Committee made unfounded claims that the visit was to benefit the Premier of the Eastern Cape and the ruler of the UAE themselves. It was not true. He also disagreed with Ms van der Merwe’s view that Members must not speak against one another. He was of the view that Members should not mislead the public on such matters. He urged Members to stay calm, cool and collected and deal with those issues within the ambit of the law. A state visit was governed by many protocols and conventions the country had ratified. He affirmed that the DHA Minister had certain discretion to deal with such matters, and the suggestions as put forward by Members, such as calling the Minister’s interpretation of law unlawful, would be overstepping the mark and interfering with the Minister’s discretion. He questioned why the German visit that Mr Pillay had mentioned had not been subjected to the same level of scrutiny.
He also indicated to the Committee that it was not the Minister’s responsibility to teach Members about the protocols of state visits, as Members should research this themselves. He found it absurd that some Members would suggest that the head of state should be using some local people during their visits, because protocols governed those visits. He did not think that the Minister had spoken at length about investment, as he had just been giving a generic overview of what the investment was.
The Chairperson asked the Minister to comment on the inputs that Members had just raised.
Minister Motsoaledi requested the Committee to write him a letter with a list of documents which this Committee sought. His impression, as he was listening to Members’ inputs, was that there was a long list of documents that he had not submitted. As he understood it, there were three documents which Members were looking for. The first document was the note verbale. He reiterated his point that that document should be acquired from DIRCO. The Minister did not think DIRCO would deny Members’ access to that document. Secondly, the Committee wanted the application submitted to Home Affairs by the Premier of the Eastern Cape. He reiterated that he had quoted all the information from the application in the report that he had just presented. Should Members feel that information was insufficient, he suggested they write to him formally, requesting the types of documents they needed so that he would not get confused. Thirdly, he understood that Members wanted access to the entourage members’ copies of visas and passports. He said that this was a new and unprecedented request. There were 18 million visits to South Africa by foreign nationals every year. At no stage had there been a request for the visa documents.
He clarified to Mr Roos that he had not made any reference to the POPIA; he had simply been talking about the security of personal information of those people, should their information be disclosed. He urged the Committee to think carefully about the long term ramifications of opening up such a precedent. It was a dangerous precedent to begin. He appealed to the Chairperson and the Committee respectfully, that although the Committee did have an oversight authority over the Department and the executive, there were certain things the Committee did not have authority on. He highlighted an example where he had once been called to the Committee and instructed to withdraw a waiver for an individual in the mining sector. Given that the Committee was so angry at the Department, the Director-General (DG) obliged and withdrew that waiver. The affected person then took the matter to court and won the case in that person’s favour. The judge had been scathing in the judgment, and indicated to the DG that should such incident occur again, the court would be punitive and ask the DG to pay the cost from their own pocket. It was made crystal clear in that judgment that the DHA should not be taking any advice from any third party (Parliament) in its administrative matters.
Minister Motsoaledi also corrected Members that President Barack Obama had never paid a state visit to South Africa during his two terms as the President of the United States. He did come to South Africa twice during his tenure. The first time was in 2013, when he came to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral, and the second time was when he attended some non-governmental organisation (NGO) event, including an event with Archbishop Desmund Tutu in Cape Town. A state visit was defined as a head of state visiting another head of state. In Obama’s case, neither fell under this definition, but he had been accorded all the protocols and privileges a state visit would have done.
He replied to Mr Tetyana that if shenanigans were involved in the visa process for the entourage, that was exactly where the Office of the Public Protector should be playing its role. He also asked Members to make a specific request to the Public Protector’s Office, indicating their specific suspicions on those particular shenanigans. However, he maintained his view that he was not aware of them. He did indicate to the Committee that one MP, who was not a Member of this Committee, had suspected that those aircraft were carrying cash. He reminded the Committee that SARS had confirmed that there had been no cash on those aircraft during last week's press conference.
The Minister confirmed that heads of states, whether visiting in a state or private capacity, did get special treatment.
He confirmed that he had not sought a legal opinion when using the BMA Act, because he believed that s30 of the Act was very clear. All he had said was that the Department had used s9(a) of the Act. The BMA was used when government declared a permanent port of entry.
He questioned Members as to whether the country intended to make visits more difficult by publishing such visits in the Gazette for a period of 30 days. The Department received such emergency landings by air ambulances on almost a weekly basis, and it was not feasible to gazette such notice for 30 days for every single case. Should his interpretation of the BMA Act be wrong, he would welcome the correct interpretation that the Office of the Public Protector adjudicated.
Minister Motsoaledi refuted Mr Roos’s remark about a hypothetical secret visit by Putin. He had never heard of a secret visit by a head of state in his whole life. There were either state visits or private visits. Since he had read many books and documents on state intelligence, he had never heard of such a thing. It would be extremely irresponsible and callous for any head of state to make such “secret” visits.
Chairperson's concluding remarks
The Chairperson thanked the Minister for his comments and indicated that the Committee seemed to have agreed with his suggested way forward on this matter.
In 2020, a matter had been dealt with in terms of how Members should engage each other on the use of language. On that occasion, a Member had used a word that ought not to have been used by an MP. A resolution had been taken collectively that such words should not be used again in future engagement processes. He reminded the Committee of the correct decorum that Members should engage with each other and the executive. When Members raised issues, they raised them on behalf of the public as the public’s representatives.
The Chairperson indicated to the Minister that the Committee would seek legal opinion around this issue from its legal service. Both the Committee and the Department should act within the ambit of the law. The Minister did not need to send to the Committee documents if he did not have the power to do so, but should the Committee have the power to do that, it would undoubtedly exercise that power and demand it.
The Chairperson reaffirmed and recognised the authority of the Public Protector, which was one of the key processes being unfolded, and which the Committee would follow up on.
The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.
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