Mabuza says question-dodging ministers not trying to defy the Constitution

 ANC deputy president David Mabuza. Photo: GCIS
ANC deputy president David Mabuza. Photo: GCIS
  • Ministers are not intentionally defying the Constitution when they do not answer parliamentary questions on time, Deputy President David Mabuza told the NCOP.
  • Several MPs raised concerns about ministers' lax attitude towards answering written questions.
  • As leader of government business, Mabuza should ensure ministers answer their questions.

Deputy President David Mabuza told the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) that he does not think ministers dodging parliamentary questions "constitutes defiance" of the Constitution.

Mabuza answered questions in a virtual sitting of the NCOP on Thursday afternoon.

One of the questions was by FF Plus MP Fanie du Toit who asked Mabuza, as leader of government business, what measures were in place to ensure members of the executive were accountable to him for answering parliamentary questions in a timely, comprehensive and correct manner.

Du Toit also asked what steps he would take against ministers who did not answer parliamentary questions correctly or mislead MPs and the public with their answers.

The leader of government business - usually the Deputy President is appointed by the President to act as a liaison between the Executive and Parliament. One of his tasks is ensuring that ministers fulfil their parliamentary duties, including answering questions.

READ | Design defects at Kusile, Medupi will take 5 years to fix, says Mabuza

Mabuza said the Constitution stipulated Cabinet members were accountable collectively and individually to Parliament for exercising their powers and the performance of their functions.  

Parliament has rules to ensure this happens.

"For our part, the leader of government business in Parliament has taken the necessary steps according to the Rules of Parliament to ensure executive accountability to Parliament."

He added: 
At every Cabinet meeting, we present a report on parliamentary matters, including scheduled appearance by ministers through their various clusters, to brief and account to Parliament.

"We do write to members of the executive requesting them to prioritise responding to unanswered written questions within the stipulated time frames.    

"Where applicable, members of the executive with more than 10 outstanding responses are expected to provide reasons for not responding within stipulated time frames, and to further outline remedial actions to identified shortfalls."

Mabuza said his office also analysed selected responses to ensure accuracy and relevance. 

"Through these efforts, we monitor that the executive complies with the Rules of Parliament in the execution of their responsibilities to ensure transparency and accountability to Parliament.

"We do this not only to satisfy the obligation of accountability to Parliament, but equally, to deepen public trust in our institutions and the functioning of the state in line with democratic ethos as entrenched in our Constitution."

He added most ministers "make every effort to ensure that they comply" with the rules.

"However, in instances where members have not fully complied, such reasons must be communicated procedurally to the presiding officers. Records will show that there is discernible improvement in this regard."

READ | The not-so-artful dodgers: Our picks of the 70 questions ministers refused to answer in 2021

In January, News24 reported about 70 questions posed to ministers by members of the National Assembly lapsed because they were not answered on time. Several of the dodged questions would have been embarrassing for the governing ANC if answered truthfully.

In June, then-Speaker Thandi Modise wrote letters to 24 ministers whose replies to questions were not within the required 10 days.

But Modise, who has since exchanged the Speaker's chair for a seat at the Cabinet table as defence minister, is the minister with the most questions - 25 - that have lapsed.
Thandi Modise
Former speaker of Parliament Thandi Modise.
News24 Jan Gerber

In his follow-up question, Du Toit said he too asked a question of the defence minister on 2 August.  An answer was not received and he followed up in November, and again in February, when he received a "vague answer".

"How will the minister be held accountable and what process would you suggest to be followed to get a comprehensive answer with the relevant figures and details within the prescribed time?"

Mabuza said members should register their "dissatisfaction" with the office of the leader of government business when they feel a question did not receive a proper answer.

"I don't think ministers are doing this deliberately just to avoid accountability. We know all of us that we are accountable here as a collective of ministers. We are also accountable as individuals in our different portfolios," he added.

DA MP Dennis Ryder said MPs did report problems with answers. He referred to the report that Modise was the "biggest offender" with answers that have lapsed.

"Now, this minister was previously the Speaker of the National Assembly. It's ironic that a person who held an office that is responsible for the entire oversight role of Parliament over the executive is now the most delinquent member of that executive," Ryder added.

"The president seems unwilling to take action against these delinquent ministers. As the leader of government business, it now reflects directly on you. What have you done to restore the dignity of the executive, in spite of its members?"

READ | Soon-to-be speaker Mapisa-Nqakula among ministers admonished for not replying to Parliamentary replies on time

Mabuza said every time he presented a report to Cabinet on ministers' performance, he always pointed out ministers lagging behind, wrote to them and asked for explanations why.

"Now, some of the ministers, when they answer to such enquiries, they bring forward the point that some of the questions requires them to seek information from a municipality and from a province. And that affects the turnaround time and makes it longer."

He advised MPs to get their colleagues in a municipality or province to ask questions directly from them.

Mabuza said the essence of being leader of government business was to ensure the executive complied.

"And you are correct to always remind us, to say 'no, no, no, you are not complying here, you're not complying here'. But I'm here and I'm saying I want to take up this matter, because complying here is not a matter of choice. It should be an obligation that we carry as the members of the executive council."
Mmabatho Olive Mokause
EFF MP Mmabatho Mokause
Netwerk24 Jaco Marais

EFF MP Mmabatho Mokause said Parliament was the central constitutional mechanism for holding the executive to account.

She asked if Mabuza agreed that President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Cabinet had no respect for accountability.

"I am aware of the outstanding questions that lapsed during the end of the year, mainly because some ministers did not answer those questions within the stipulated time," Mabuza said.

He added when a minister had more than 10 unanswered questions, "it becomes a problem".

"And we do all sorts of means to get the minister to answer.

"We must apologise for those outstanding questions that finally lapsed. But going forward, we are going to insist on the members of the executive. Myself and the president we don't owe any questions. It might be ministers that are owing questions."

Mabuza said: 
But I don't think that constitutes a defiance - people not wanting to respect the institutions of Parliament. It's an omission that must be corrected which I take it as leader of government business.

In the National Assembly, ministers have 10 days to respond to the questions but can request an additional 10 more.

Last year, the National Assembly adopted stricter rules for ministers who do not answer questions within the designated time.

This would allow the Speaker to consider a public reprimand in a plenary sitting of the National Assembly. As a last resort, the Speaker could escalate the matter through a formal complaint directed to the leader of government business.

The only rule of the NCOP dealing with unanswered written questions is Rule 249, which reads: "If the responsible Cabinet member has not replied in writing to a question within 10 working days of the day for which the question was set down for written reply, and the member in whose name the question stands so requests, the secretary must place the question on the question paper for oral reply."

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