Zuma to answer questions NOW!

2015-04-12 15:00

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President Jacob Zuma and members of his Cabinet face having to take questions on the spot without scripted answers in Parliament if new proposed rules are adopted.

The technical committee, which is reviewing the rules of the National Assembly, wants Zuma and members of his executive to answer off-the-cuff questions from the floor, saying this will strengthen accountability and improve the competence of the executive.

The committee proposed this week that questions without notice be given further consideration by the Rules Committee – which will take the final decision on the matter.

The proposed rule would mean an hour or 90 minutes of a plenary session of the assembly being set aside every three months for questions without notice to a minister, the deputy president or the president.

This could also be useful for asking questions that are constituency based and it would contribute to a more vibrant and relevant parliament. Members should also be in a position to ask difficult questions, said a proposal of the sub-committee, which met for three days this week.

The committee also proposes that the questions be of a broad political nature and be relevant to the responsibilities of the minister.

“The benefit is that the ministers will start to sit down with their officials and say: what are the issues affecting my department at the moment, what kind of questions can I expect,” said committee adviser Kasper Hahndiek, who is an expert on parliamentary rules.

“The minister through this process makes a greater effort to be aware of the issues affecting that ministry at any time. That’s the situation in the Britain, where the prime minister answers questions without notice,” he added.

The proposed rule is not new. It existed before but was disused from 1995 when Nelson Mandela was the president of the republic.

Parliament’s official line for discontinuing the rule originally was a consideration in the National Assembly for Madiba’s age, resolving “not to subject him to that kind of rudimentary scrutiny”.

The executive at that time was also new to government and it was decided that it could not be expected to know issues off-the-cuff.

This week, however, an senior ANC MP revealed that the decision to discontinue the rule was in fact to “contain” the president.

ANC MP Nyami Booi, who has been in Parliament since 1994, related how Mandela had responded to an unscripted question on the execution of Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in a “haywire” manner and this led to the deterioration of the relationship between South African and Nigeria.

“That is the truth. From then on, the ANC decided to change the rules and stop presidents from answering questions in that manner,” he added.

This week, Booi went against his ANC comrades in the sub-committee and supported the return of the practice.

“It’s a bit tricky but it is something MPs should apply their minds to,” Booi said, before adding that “the politics of keeping the proposal are quite relevant.

“The reality is that we are dealing with human beings, activist politicians, and they are supposed to know what is going on in the society.

“Let’s not run human beings by a string, because they are ministers, where we write down everything for them,” he added.

Other ANC MPs in the sub-committee, Lemias Mashile and Richard Mdakane were not as open to the proposed rule.

Mashile registered his “serious reservations” about it, saying it may not help Parliament to try to test the knowledge of specific officials on the spot and it may, in fact, defeat the objective as answers may not be of as good a quality as expected by MPs and their constituencies.

The DA disagreed.

“A minister should never be in a position where she or he is caught off-guard,” said DA MP Natasha Mazzone. She said ministers should be familiar with their portfolios to such an extent that no question should could catch them off-guard.

The EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, who presented a submission on behalf of his party, described the proposal as “very progressive”, saying it would provide for the possibility of authentic conversations where leadership was demonstrated.

The committee is planning to submit the overhauled rulebook to the rules committee for approval in two weeks’ time.

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