REPORTER’S PARLIAMENTARY NOTEBOOK: Intelligence oversight committee scuppered by delayed SSA vetting, while push to pass 18 Bills in two months raises ire
Parliament’s oversight structure for spooks and spies and police crime intelligence, the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence, has not met for three months because the security vetting of the incoming chairperson still hasn’t been finalised. It’s yet another example how the State Security Agency is flailing. Just as Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo said he’s writing to the president for assistance because the SSA was failing to complete vetting members of his commission of inquiry team, Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli said on Thursday that he’d ‘urgently’ raise this with the powers that are.
Security vetting is a core responsibility of the State Security Agency (SSA). No one is appointed to top public service jobs, or positions in state entities or to commissions of inquiry, without such vetting. As Cabinet statements on appointments always point out, “All appointment are subject to the verification of qualifications and the relevant clearance.” But SSA is failing in this vetting job, and has done so for years. Backlogs and shortages emerged publicly at a State Security budget vote briefing three years ago and, more recently, before Parliament’s spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), in December 2017. Then still spook boss Arthur Fraser told MPs that unco-operative employees were hampering the process, but that this would be nixed by new regulations being drafted and an e-vetting system to be operative from April 2018. Ten months later, security clearance vetting remains problematic – and this now has constitutional consequences. Parliament’s intelligence services oversight committee has been unable to sit for three months because members of the JSCI, the only oversight committee established in law, must be security vetted. The SSA has failed to complete the process for the person identified to take over as chairperson, a post vacated when Charles Nqakula left to become President Cyril Ramaphosa’s security adviser. By delaying this vetting the SSA is undermining the legislative sphere of state, effectively holding Parliament’s constitutionally mandated oversight and accountability processes to ransom. The issue was raised by DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen at Thursday’s National Assembly programming committee as a grave concern “given the issues and challenges facing” State Security. It was one of those rare moments of cross-party-political agreement. “We concur,” said ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu. “We have done everything we can… The delay is with those who are supposed to have vetted the colleague, who’s taking over. I don’t know why the vetting is taking this long…” Also not quite clear was where the report of the parliamentary State Capture inquiry into Eskom was sitting. According to the Z-list, the official notice of committee sittings, the public enterprises committee was going to discuss its draft report earlier this week, but that was changed at the last moment in favour of discussing minutes and other committee work. Steenhuisen told the programming committee it was important for Parliament to finalise what was an important inquiry. “The information contained in this incredible work done by this House would undoubtedly be helpful for the Zondo commission of inquiry… Parliament, when it does its job, can hold people accountable.” While House Chairperson for Committees Cedric Frolick said the inquiry draft report would be on the committee agenda next week, Tsenoli assured everyone: “We have a good relation with the Zondo commission.” During the debate on Parliament’s budget vote in May it emerged that documents such as transcripts and other evidence of the parliamentary State Capture inquiry had been handed to the Zondo commission. Also on the security related front, the programming committee discussed Wednesday’s closure of the water and sanitation committee, and the calling in of bouncers against the media who were peaceably leaving the meeting once it was closed to the media. Mthembu apologised, saying this should have never happened. “It was not necessary to bring the parliamentary protection services as if we are dealing with thugs. These (journalists) are colleagues we are working with. It was totally not called for, totally not necessary.” No one disagreed. Determining, among other things, who actually called in the bouncers on the media is one issue that’s having to be dealt with amid a loaded parliamentary calendar that also includes EFF Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu’s second ethics complaint for 2018. Not declaring conflicts of interest regarding VBS Mutual Bank would be investigated, the ethics committee confirmed, according to complainant DA MP Phumzile Van Damme in a statement on Thursday. This comes in addition to April’s complaint to the parliamentary ethics committee against Shivambu for assaulting a journalist after a clip of this was widely circulated on social media. Parliament is putting itself under pressure. It wants to wrap its programme by end of November, but the to-do list is ever increasing. There are eight laws that must be passed in line with Constitutional Court judgment – one such court deadline has already been missed for passing amendment legislation to ensure greater independence for the boss of the Independent Police Investigating Directorate (Ipid). And then there is a request from the Executive to prioritise 18 Bills to be passed before Parliament rises. Twelve of these draft laws are only at the first legislative stage, the National Assembly committee. The request raised heckles at Thursday’s programming meeting. “Given we passed 11 Bills all of last year, to pass 18 Bills in less than two months is misplaced,” said Steenhuisen as IFP Chief Whip Narend Singh also raised concerns about the demands from Cabinet. “It’s like you woke up last night and want something to be done in the morning.” The ANC was somewhat more circumspect, saying it was unclear why this letter recounting Cabinet’s wishes for prioritised Bills was signed off by someone who does not actually sit in Cabinet. “I would have been much happier if that letter would come from the leader of government business (Deputy President David “DD” Mabuza),” said Mthembu. Daily Maverick is reliably informed that the letter was signed off by Ebrahim Ebrahim, former president Jacob Zuma’s parliamentary counsellor whom Mabuza has retained. Not quite accepting the letter of the leader of government business at Parliament’s parliamentary counsellor in the often obscure world of parliamentary politics and protocol amounts to criticism of how Cabinet is relating to Parliament. But then there are also moments of wit, at least in parliamentary terms. In a word play on what parliamentary rules call “urgent matters of national public importance”, the ANC decided to name its motion before the House on Tuesday “The VBS Mutual Bank Report: The Great Bank Heist – a Matter of Public Importance”. The ANC chief whip indicated that the secretary to the National Assembly had requested a change of topic, given the word play to the specific type of motion set out in Rule 130. But that wasn’t going to happen. The ANC owned the motion, said Mthembu. “We don’t entertain any censorship.” And for the second time in one committee meeting it was smiles around. That’s rare. DM