Constitutional Hill

ANC

James Bond and the National Key Points Act

The National Key Points Act, passed by the apartheid Parliament in 1980 to protect the PW Botha regime and those who collaborated with it, is a constitutional abomination. Yet, when civil society groups requested the list of National Key Points from the Minister of Police in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), this request was refused on the grounds that making the list public would provide information to “dark forces” out to destabilise South Africa. The Gauteng High Court had no problem in rejecting this laughable claim and ordered the release of the list.

Secrecy becomes a habit for those with something to hide. No wonder the apartheid state was notoriously secretive. Although the rumour that PW Botha’s matric certificate was classified information could never be confirmed (let’s just say that he was no academic overachiever), much else in apartheid South Africa was classified information. When the apartheid state finally came crashing down in the early 1990ties the paper shredders worked overtime to destroy the (secret) evidence on extra-judicial killings, torture and other state crimes.

The National Key Points Act played its part in creating this web of secrecy and deceit. Although the list of National Key Points was never made public, citizens could be prosecuted for revealing information about security measures at National Key Points, creating a Kafkaesque world in which you could be sent to prison for something that you could not have known was a crime.

Sadly (but perhaps not surprisingly) the Act was never repealed or amended after the advent of democracy. It has, instead, been enthusiastically (but only selectively – more on this later) used to suppress information about facilities about which the public may ask awkward questions. A certain private home in rural KwaZulu-Natal comes to mind.

The Act allows the Minister to declare any place a National Key Point, among other reasons “whenever he considers it necessary or expedient for the safety of the Republic or in the public interest”. As the High Court pointed out this gives the Minister (now the Minister of Police) almost unfettered discretion to declare places National Key Points if he or she wants to keep information about it secret.

The declaration of a place as a National Key Point has some interesting consequences. Section 3 of the Act states that once declared a Key Point:

the owner of the National Key Point concerned shall after consultation with the Minister at his own expense take steps to the satisfaction of the Minister in respect of the security of the said Key Point.

Famously this provision was ignored after President Jacob Zuma’s private home was declared a National Key Point. It was argued that a cabinet decision on security upgrades at Presidential homes governed the Nkandla renovations. However, it is unclear how a policy decision taken by one branch of government, can trump legislation passed by another.

The Constitutional Court ruled in Executive Council of the Western Cape Legislature and Others v President of the Republic of South Africa and Others that the executive cannot amend the provisions of an Act of Parliament as this would breach the separation of powers. The cabinet policy therefore could not amend the provisions of the National Key Points Act.

A fascinating legal question is whether a cabinet policy can be invoked to justify state-funded “security upgrades” at a National Key Point, given that the Act requires the owner to carry the cost of any security upgrades. In her report the Public Protector assumed that it could. But I would be surprised if a court found that the peremptory provisions in an Act of Parliament could be overridden by a cabinet policy.

Section 3B of the Act also requires the establishment of a “Special Account” which can be used to render financial assistance – including loans – to the owners of National Key Points required to improve the security on the property. This Special Account has never been created. This means another pivotal section of the National Key Points Act has not been complied with.

Section 10 of the Act further creates several criminal offences regarding National Key Points. Amongst others, it prohibits any person from furnishing “any information relating to the security measures applicable at or in respect of any National Key Point”.

When the list of National Key Points is kept secret it means that ordinary citizens may not know when they commit a crime relating to a National Key Point. The High Court correctly found that keeping the list of National Key Points secret was in conflict with one of the basic tenets of the principle of legality.

This is so because there can be no secret laws. “One of the central tenets underlying the common-law understanding of legality is that of foreseeability – that the rules of criminal law are clear and precise so that an individual may easily behave in a manner that avoids committing crimes.” For this reason alone, according to the High Court, the list of National Key Points had to be made public.

The state also had an obligation in terms of PAIA to make the list public. Section 11(3) of PAIA makes it clear that a requester of information need not justify a request for information held by the state. In contrast, if the state refuse to provide the information requested it is the state who has to justify its refusal.

In this case, the state failed to provide any evidence of why it was justified to keep the list of National Key Points a secret.

The High Court quoted extensively from the Constitutional Court judgment in President of the Republic of South Africa and Others v M & G Media Ltd to explain what was required from the state to justify a refusal to provide information held by it.

In order to discharge its burden under PAIA, the state must provide evidence that the record in question falls within the description of the statutory exemption it seeks to claim. The proper approach … is therefore to ask whether the state has put forward sufficient evidence for a court to conclude that, on the probabilities, the information withheld falls within the exemption claimed. The recitation of the statutory language of the exemptions claimed is not sufficient for the state to show that the record in question falls within the exemptions claimed. Nor are mere ipse dixit affidavits proffered by the state. The affidavits for the state must provide sufficient information to bring the record within the exemption claimed.

“Sufficient information” was never provided in this case to justify the secrecy. Instead the state alluded to “dark forces” that are out to destabilize peace-loving countries, like our own. By way of illustration, the state referred to the bombing of the mall in Nairobi as this supposedly shows “how vulnerable countries and their citizens are.” As the High Court remarked:

This is, self-evidently, an ill chosen example; ie, to compare a shopping centre being exposed to politically inspired violence, where the public congregate en masse, with a key point, is inapposite. However, it may be supposed that, upon a generous interpretation of the remark, it was intended simply to illustrate the generic exposure to unexpected violence that everyone experiences. Nevertheless, to give voice to a bland truism contributes nothing to a justification under PAIA.

In fact, the court found that the state wholly failed to provide any evidence for denying access to the list. The state claimed that making the list public would endanger the lives of people and was likely to endanger state security. But it did not provide any facts to back up this bold claim. On the contrary, the state itself had on previous occasions revealed that some places have been declared National Key Points, rendering its argument that such revelation threatens the security of individuals or the state difficult to accept.

As the High Court wryly remarked:

The rationale offered by the respondents is spoilt by the conduct of the Government itself, because evidence was adduced of ministers having furnished details of key points to Parliament for the whole world to know, including, presumably, those dark forces that lurk in wait to disturb our tranquillity. A further example of public disclosure of a key point adduced by the applicants includes the very public announcement that Nkandla, the private home of President Zuma, has been declared a key point.

The Court also rejected the state’s “James Bond defence”. Perhaps answering the question on whether the law has a sense of humour first posed by Justice Sachs in the Laugh it Off case, the High Court rejected this defence in the following manner:

In argument, counsel for the respondents, quite properly, was driven to concede that there was no evidential material disclosed in the papers to support the refusal. He contended that the predicament of the respondents was illustrated by the experiences of that well known gentleman adventurer and upholder of noble causes, James Bond, who, albeit it must be supposed, with his customary charm and grace, declined to disclose a fact to a questioner, because were he to do so, he would have to kill him. This is an interesting submission, which, alas, is spoilt by the absence of such an allegation under oath.

Hopefully the state will not appeal the judgment. If it does appeal, it will almost certainly lose again, wasting taxpayer’s money in the process.

But this judgment is only a partial victory for common sense and openness. The case did not deal with the larger question of whether the Key Points Act was unconstitutional. Given the untrammelled discretion given to the Minister to declare places National Key Points, aspects of the Act will almost certainly be declared unconstitutional if they were to be challenged.

But that question will only be definitely answered when the constitutionality of the Act is challenged in court. Hopefully the court will get the opportunity to answer this question in the near future.

Our own Olivia Pope won’t end corruption

Last week the Constitutional Court confirmed that Parliament had failed to comply with its previous judgment on the unconstitutionality of the legislation that created the Hawks. But the court also reminded us that no amount of legal tinkering could guarantee the unit’s effectiveness in combatting corruption. Institutions do not (on their own) stop corruption. People do.

When Parliament abolished the Scorpions because it was foolhardy enough to pursue corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma and other high profile politicians and replaced it with the Hawks, the move was met with shock and outrage by many of the same people who watch and enjoy the questionable actions of Olivia Pope in the television series The Fixer (Scandal in the US) and the depraved behaviour of Frank Underwood in the House of Cards.

It is as if people believed that an institution like the Scorpions could single-handedly end the culture of patronage that has become entrenched in our political system. The recent judgment of the Constitutional Court in Helen Suzman Foundation v President of the Republic of South Africa and Others; Glenister v President of the Republic of South Africa and Others reminds us that a corruption fighting body (as well as the courts) – while playing an important role – can only do so much to stop corruption.

The most telling aspect of the judgment can be found in an “End Note”, penned by Justice Johan van der Westhuizen in his partly concurring judgment.

Justice Van der Westhuizen acknowledges that corruption “threatens the very existence of our constitutional democracy” and that effective laws and institutions are needed to combat corruption. The Constitutional Court therefore has a duty to “ensure that legal mechanisms against corruption are as trustworthy and tight as possible”.

But courts can only do so much. A corruption-free society can only develop in the hearts and minds of its people – particularly the ones occupying positions of political and economic power. We need dedication to the spirit and high aspirations of the Constitution. Institutions are tools designed to help people realise their ambitions.  Much dedication is required on the part of those handling the tools.

As Justice Van der Westhuizen points out:

[E]ven the most sophisticated institutional design will require the exercise of discretion and therefore integrity on the part of – and trust in – the office-bearer. Thoroughly closing all perceived loopholes will guarantee little. The more procedures and processes we put in place to safeguard against corruption, the more plausible deniability we give to a corrupt actor if all the technical boxes have been ticked. Generally, abstract institutional designs cannot be corrupt. As we know, people can be.

These words should not come as a shock to those who have watched Olivia Pope strut around in her beautiful white dresses “fixing” other people’s problems by delivering stirring speeches, drinking many large glasses of red wine, her bottom lip occasionally quivering with emotion, while her murderous daddy goes around subverting the rule of law in between lecturing Olivia about how political power actually works.

If I understand Justice Van der Westhuizen correctly, he is saying that while institutions like the Scorpions or the Hawks could help to fight corruption if they were adequately independent, it is only when voters start punishing politicians and the parties they belong to for being corrupt or for not taking decisive action against their colleagues in their respective parties who are corrupt, that there would be a real incentive to end the scourge of corruption. The most effective mechanism to fight corruption is the democratic process itself.

But that depends on voters making the connection between the corruption (in both the public and the private sector) and their own circumstances; the lack of access to clean water or adequate toilets, the absence of decent housing, the long queues at the state hospital, the rude and inefficient service at the municipal office, the power cuts, the rubbish that remains uncollected in the streets.

This does not mean that an “adequately independent” corruption fighting body could not help to expose corruption. For this reason the Constitutional Court (in a majority judgment authored by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng) confirmed the unconstitutionality of several sections of the legislation relating to the establishment of the Hawks.

This legislation was amended by Parliament in a failed attempt to give effect to the Constitutional Court’s previous decision declaring aspects of the legislation unconstitutional for not creating and adequately independent corruption fighting body.

When a Bill purporting to give effect to the first Constitutional Court judgment was initially tabled in Parliament, it displayed little enthusiasm for the creation of an independent corruption fighting body.

It was not only that the “quality of the drafting could use some improvement” – as Justice Mogoeng wryly remarked – but also that the original draft did everything to ensure that the politicians remained in control of the Hawks and that the body would not be able to act independently from some of those it may have to investigate.

To its credit the Portfolio Committee fixed many of the clearly unconstitutional aspects of the draft Bill after several experts (full disclosure, I was one of those so called “experts”) pointed out that the draft legislation would never pass constitutional muster.

But, sadly, the Portfolio Committee ignored some of the important points raised during the deliberations, which has now led the Constitutional Court declaring invalid several sections of the legislation dealing with the establishment of the Hawks.

The Court examined each of the impugned provisions to determine whether they militate for or against a corruption-fighting agency, which, though not absolutely independent, should nevertheless be adequately independent in terms of both its structure and operations.  It used the following test to do so:

We say merely that public confidence in mechanisms that are designed to secure independence is indispensable. Whether a reasonably informed and reasonable member of the public will have confidence in an entity’s autonomy-protecting features is important to determining whether it has the requisite degree of independence. Hence, if Parliament fails to create an institution that appears from the reasonable standpoint of the public to be independent, it has failed to meet one of the objective benchmarks for independence. This is because public confidence that an institution is independent is a component of, or is constitutive of, its independence.

The majority of the Court declined to declare invalid the section of the law dealing with the appointment of the National Head of the Hawks by the Minister of Police after approval by the Cabinet (Cameron J in a dissenting opinion argued that the section was indeed unconstitutional). However, Chief Justice Mogoeng did provide an interpretation of the section that limits the discretion of the Minister and the cabinet to appoint the Head of the Hawks. The Court emphasised that only a “fit and proper” person could be appointed which means:

that the candidate must have the capacity to do the job well and the character to match the importance of the office.  Experience, integrity and conscientiousness are all intended to help determine a possible appointee’s suitability ‘to be entrusted with the responsibilities of the office concerned’. Similarly, laziness, dishonesty and general disorderliness must of necessity disqualify a candidate…. Since inconsequential experience and character flaws could not have enhanced the prospects of her appointment to that office, if she was nevertheless appointed, then a successful legal challenge may be mounted against that appointment.

The Court did invalidate the provision that allowed the Minister to renew the term of office of the National Head of the Hawks as this would clearly have compromised the independence of the unit. It also declared invalid sections of the law that would have empowered the Minister to suspend and eventually remove the National Head of the Hawks without any involvement of Parliament.

Other provisions of the Act, which gave far too much power to the Minister to decide which crimes could and could not be investigated by the Hawks and how it had to operate, were also declared invalid. The involvement of the Minister, said the Court, would have rendered:

the anti-corruption character of the [Hawks] dependant on whatever the Minister, in the exercise of her discretion, wants it to be.

This would not have been in accordance with the requirement to create an adequately independent corruption fighting body.

The judgment represents delicate balancing act. It is careful to respect, as far as possible, the policy choices made by Parliament, while protecting the “adequate independence” of the Hawks.

Whether this judgment will ultimately bolster the independence of the Hawks will depend to a significant degree on whether the National Head of the Hawks and those working for the unit are prepared to act in a fearless manner to fight corruption no matter where it might be found.

Even the most honest and diligent person would find this difficult to do – unless he or she can depend on support of those in power and, ultimately on that of ordinary voters; the very people who will be directly affected by corruption.

This suggests that until such time as an overwhelming majority of voters reject all forms of corruption – even when this is committed by a politician belonging to the political party they support or by a business leader they respect – the Hawks will not be able to turn the tide against a phenomenon that “threatens the very existence of our constitutional democracy”.

Deal between Ramaphosa and opposition was unenforceable

The collapse of the “deal” between opposition parties and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is not surprising. From a principled constitutional perspective the collapse of the deal must be welcomed. This is because the Deputy President did not have the constitutional authority to make the deal, which remained unenforceable. To enforce the deal would flout the Rule of Law.

It is sometimes difficult to insist on the scrupulous enforcement of legal rules and principles. Many people are tempted to look the other way when the political party or functionary they admire or are loyal to flout the legal rules and constitutional principles. Conversely, many people only insist on a strict adherence to legal rules or constitutional principles when a political party or functionary they dislike flouts the rules or principles.

Because of the fairly widespread lack of respect for Speaker Baleka Mbete among the members of the chattering classes (and because of the increasing chaos in the National Assembly), there were not many people who questioned the “deal” concluded between the Deputy President and opposition parties. For reasons not known to me, it appears that members of the ANC caucus – correctly – did question the appropriateness of the deal.

There are two reasons why the “deal” (which has since collapsed) was a constitutional non-starter.

First, the Deputy President (while a member of the National Assembly) is a member of the executive and as such represents the executive when he engages with members of the National Assembly in his official capacity.

In terms of section 91(4) the Deputy President has been chosen to act as the leader of government business in the National Assembly. Although the rules of the National Assembly require that he be consulted on several issues and although he serves as a member of the Programming Committee of the National Assembly, neither the Constitution nor the rules of the National Assembly accords the Deputy President (as leader of government business) any leadership role in the National Assembly.

The Speaker heads the National Assembly. Constitutionally only the Speaker can make decisions about the affairs of the National Assembly and then only when this is authorised by the Constitution and the rules of the National Assembly. If a deal was going to be struck about the affairs of Parliament, the Speaker was the appropriate person to do so.

This does not mean that the Deputy President may not meet with the leaders of opposition parties. Neither does it mean that he may not – on behalf of the governing party – make political deals with opposition parties. What he is not authorised to do is to make deals with opposition parties regarding the affairs of Parliament. The “deal” reached last week was therefore (for this reason alone) unenforceable and constitutionally invalid.

But, second, even if the Speaker had led the negotiations with opposition parties and had concluded the “deal”, she would not (in a formal sense) have been legally authorised to do so.

Rule 2(1) of the National Assembly states that the “Speaker may give a ruling or frame a Rule in respect of any eventuality for which these Rules do not provide”.

But the problem is that the rules and legislation already regulate the two most important aspects on which the governing party and the opposition differed. It does so in great detail.

These issues are the disciplining of EFF members in terms of the provisions of the Powers Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act 2004 for insisting that the President “pay back the money” and the need for the President to answer questions in the Assembly four times a year.

It may very well be that the disciplinary action taken against EFF members were not “in accordance with a procedure that is reasonable and procedurally fair” as required by section 12(3)(a) of the Powers Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act.

The EFF members have a more than even chance of persuading a judge that the procedure (prescribed by the rules of the National Assembly) that led to their conviction was neither reasonable or procedurally fair. The judge could then set aside the findings. But neither the Speaker (nor the Deputy President) formally has the legal authority to do so.

But this is not a particularly difficult problem to solve. While the Deputy President and the Speaker does not have the formal legal power to suspend or scrap the findings of the disciplinary committee against EFF members, the members of the National Assembly does have that power. All that is required is support from the majority of Members of the National Assembly.

This is because the National Assembly has the power to either endorse or reject the findings of the disciplinary committee established in terms of the legislation. This means that had the President and the Chief Whip of the ANC been able to sell this aspect of the “deal” to their party, its members could have declined to support the findings of the disciplinary committee against the EFF members. The disciplinary action against the EFF would then have fallen by the wayside.

This is somewhat of a technicality, which means that in practice either the Deputy President or the Speaker would have been able indirectly to deliver on a promise to halt disciplinary action against the EFF if the members of their party had backed them up.

But this is not the case with the requirement that the President must appear in Parliament to answer questions. This is, first, because section 55(2) of the Constitution states that the “National Assembly must provide for mechanisms to ensure that all executive organs of state in the national sphere of government are accountable to it”. These executive organs of state include the President.

This obligation is given practical effect to by National Assembly rule 111 which states that:

Questions to the President must be (a) scheduled for a question day at least once per term in accordance with the annual Parliamentary programme; and (b) limited to matters of national and international importance.

The rule is peremptory, which means the President does not have a discretion in the matter. The Speaker must ensure that he is scheduled to answer questions once every term.

Here the rule at first appears to be confusing. A “term” is defined in the rules as “the period for which the Assembly is elected in terms of section 49(1) of the Constitution”. Section 49(1) states that the National Assembly is elected for a term of five years. If “term” is given this meaning every time the word “term” is actually used in the rules, it would render many of the rules incomprehensible and absurd. This is so because the rules often refer to a “term” when it means one of the four periods a year when the Parliament is in sitting.

It would also mean a President would have to answer oral questions in the National Assembly only once every five years. This would clearly be in conflict with section 55(2) of the Constitution, which means the rule must be read differently. This is exactly what has happened up to now.

As I noted, the word “term” is also used elsewhere in the rules to refer the distinct periods in which the Parliament is in session each year. Given the context of rule 111, “term” clearly refers to these distinct periods. Usually there are four “terms” for Parliament every year.

However, this year there was an election, which means when establishing whether the President has complied with his legal obligation set out by rule 111, one has to establish how many terms Parliament was in session this year after the May election.

The Parliamentary Programme for the fifth Parliament elected after the May election states that Parliament sat for three distinct terms after the election. This means that the rules of the National Assembly require that the President answer oral questions in the National Assembly at least three times from June to November this year.

This did not happen.

The President has only answered oral questions in the National Assembly once since the election. He is therefore legally required to answer questions in the National Assembly two more times before the third term of Parliament ends on Friday. This is not going to happen, which means the President (and the Speaker who ought to arrange for this) are therefore in breach of their legal obligations in terms of section 55(2) of the Constitution read with rule 111 of the National Assembly.

Neither the Deputy President (as leader of government business) nor the Speaker has the legal authority to waive these rules. A basic tenet of the Rule of Law is that all peremptory, pre-announced and clear legal rules have to be complied with. In the absence of a court ruling to authorise a non-enforcement of a legal rule, it would constitute a breach of the Rule of Law to ignore such a rule in order to facilitate a political agreement.

This is the thing with peremptory legal rules: they cannot be suspended merely because a few politicians decide that the legal rules are inconvenient or – if applied – would embarrass the President or disadvantage the opposition parties.

What is clear is that there has been a breakdown of trust between political parties in the National Assembly. Without a modicum of trust, the system cannot work properly. Instead of a lively and robust platform for democratic contestation, it becomes a mini-war zone. And in a war, brute force – and not the strength of argument – is the only thing that counts. But politics is not (only) about brute force – at least not in any system with democratic pretensions. If the system does not work, its legitimacy will be compromised. Eventually the legitimacy of the both the governing party and opposition parties would also suffer.

This means that, despite the legal difficulties, some kind of solution need to be found to ensure that the rules are impartially applied and the members more or less obey the impartially applied rules. A starting point would be to ensure the implementation of rule 111 and to arrange for the President to answer questions as required by the Constitution and the rules of the National Assembly.

Why report of Nkandla ad hoc committee is of no legal relevance

Last week the ANC members of Parliament adopted a “report” that “exonerates” President Jacob Zuma of all wrongdoing in the R250 million Nkandla scandal. This is not unexpected. ANC MP’s need to protect the President in order to retain their jobs and to have any chance of promotion in future. It is politically required of them. But Nkandla is not (only) about politics. It is also about facts and the law. And legally the adoption of the “report” by ANC MP’s is of little significance.

The only surprising thing about the fact that the ANC MP’s in the National Assembly “exonerated” President Jacob Zuma of all wrongdoing for “accidentally” being enriched through government funded renovations of his private home near Nkandla, is that anyone was surprised.

President Zuma heads the ANC and is arguably (bar the Secretary General of the ANC perhaps) the most powerful person in the governing party. He has a decisive say in who is appointed as Cabinet Ministers and as Premiers. He has direct or indirect influence on who appears on ANC election lists.

He has extensive knowledge – through control of the intelligence services – of the shenanigans of those MP’s whose private lives or financial affairs may not be above board. And like the members of most political parties, ANC MP’s act as a collective in terms of decisions taken by the leadership, headed by President Zuma.

It would therefore have been political madness for ANC MP’s to endorse the findings of the Public Protector’s Report on Nkandla which found that President Zuma’s:

failure to act in protection of state resources constitutes a violation of paragraph 2 of the Executive Ethics Code and accordingly, amounts to conduct that is inconsistent with his office as a member of Cabinet, as contemplated by section 96 of the Constitution.

Section 96 of the Constitution states that Members of the Cabinet – including the President – have a constitutional duty to act in accordance with a code of ethics and may not “use their position or any information entrusted to them, to enrich themselves or improperly benefit any other person”. In other words the Public Protector found that by failing to act when he had a constitutional and legal duty to do so, the President breached the Constitution and the Code of Ethics.

The Public Protector’s Report continued to direct President Jacob Zuma to do the following to rectify the unethical and unconstitutional omission:

  • Take steps, with the assistance of the National Treasury and the SAPS, to determine the reasonable cost of the measures implemented by the DPW at his private residence that do not relate to security, and which include Visitors’ Centre, the amphitheatre, the cattle kraal and chicken run, the swimming pool.
  • Pay a reasonable percentage of the cost of the measures as determined with the assistance of National Treasury, also considering the DPW apportionment document.
  • Reprimand the Ministers involved for the appalling manner in which the Nkandla Project was handled and state funds were abused.
  • Report to the National Assembly on his comments and actions on this report within 14 days. (This needed to be done because the Executive Members Ethics Act required it.)

These steps were not directed at Parliament but at the President. Because of the separation of powers doctrine, which holds that the legislature and the executive exercise different powers and functions, the central duties and powers of the head of the executive (the President) cannot be delegated to Parliament.

To do so would be to breach the separation of powers. Similarly the central duties and powers of the legislature cannot be delegated to the President. This was made clear by the constitutional Court in their judgment in Justice Alliance of South Africa v President of Republic of South Africa and Others, Freedom Under Law v President of Republic of South Africa and Others.

The renovations at the Nkandla home were done by members of the executive, headed by the President. Parliament did not renovate President Zuma’s house. This is because Parliament does not and may not fulfil an executive function. It cannot direct a building project or make decisions on whether to build a swimming pool or landscaped garden for the President to protect him from the danger of not having a swimming pool to cool down in and the danger of getting depressed by having to look at an ugly garden. Only members of the executive can do that.

It is for that reason that the Public Protector directed the President, the Minister of Police and the Director General of the Department of Public Works, and other members of the executive to take remedial action to rectify the wrongdoing committed during the Nkandla renovations.

The remedial action was not directed at the legislature. In fact the Public Protector, correctly, did not instruct the National Assembly to do anything – although she left open the possibility that it could hold the executive politically accountable for the unjustified enrichment of the President. This is because the members of the executive cannot delegate its powers to correct mistakes and to deal with unlawful expenditure to the legislature, as that would be impermissible in terms of the separation of powers doctrine.

Just as the President cannot delegate a decision on whether to declare war or whether to join BRICS to members of Parliament, he cannot delegate a decision of what to do with the Nkandla Report to Parliament.

This does not mean that the National Assembly has no power to deal with a breach of the Executive Members Ethics Act, as it has the power to hold the members of the executive accountable for such breaches as part of the system of checks and balances that is built into our Constitution.

In terms of the Executive Members Ethics Act the President must report a finding of any breach of the Ethics Code to the National Assembly. In theory this means that the National Assembly can follow up on any findings made by the Public Protector against a member of the executive and, in an extreme case, can pass a vote of no confidence in the Cabinet or in the President to have them removed.

But as the Cape High Court recently found in the judgment in which it clarified the powers of the Public Protector, Parliament would seldom be an effective mechanism through which the findings and remedial action of the Public Protector would be enforced.

In that judgment, dealing with the failure of the Minister of Communications and the SABC Board to deal rationally with the findings and remedial action imposed by the Public Protector, the Minister had argued that the best way to deal with any non-compliance of the Public Protector’s Report would be to refer the matter to the National Assembly.

The Minister argued that a request for intervention to the National Assembly or a relevant Portfolio Committee would have been an adequate remedy to deal with any alleged failure of the executive and the SABC Board to implement the remedial action imposed by the Public Protector.

The High Court dismissed this argument and found that the Minister was “mistaken”.

The facts of this very case show that the constitutional and statutory provisions upon which they rely are inadequate to ensure that the Public Protector is not undermined. Furthermore, a request for intervention to the National Assembly or its Portfolio Committee is not a legal remedy which grants similar protection as an interdict.

In other words, the High Court found that it would not be effective to rely on the National Assembly to deal with the implementation of the remedial action imposed by the Public Protector. This is obviously correct, because in the National Assembly political (and not legal) considerations will almost always determine the manner in which the National Assembly deals with the matter.

It is highly unlikely that the members of a majority party in any legislature will act in a manner that embarrasses their leader. It is even more unlikely that they will censure the leader or remove him or her from office by passing a motion of no confidence in him or her.

This is not a comment on (or criticism of) a specific political party, but an observation about the political reality within which the various legislatures operate in South Africa.

It is just as unlikely that the ANC members in the National Assembly will pass a vote of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma than it is that the DA members in the Western Cape Provincial Legislature would pass a vote of no confidence in Premier Helen Zille. It ain’t gonna happen – no matter how disgruntled some ANC MPs may be about President Zuma’s spendthrift ways or how upset some DA MPs may be about Premier Zille’s bullying and haughtiness.

This means that the National Assembly “Report” that “exonerates” President Zuma is of little legal relevance. In terms of the High Court judgment, it is the President who has a legal duty to consider the remedial action imposed on him by the Public Protector, to decide whether to implement the remedial action or not and if he decides not to implement any of the remedial action imposed on him to provide “cogent reasons” for not doing so.

When the President makes his decision, he must act rationally, having regard to his constitutional duty to assist and protect the independence and effectiveness of the Public Protector. He cannot ignore the remedial action and he cannot refuse to implement it merely because he has a different view from that of the Public Protector.

Being implicated in the matter means that the President is placed in an unappealing position: If he refuses to implement remedial steps it will be to his own financial and political benefit and it would thus be more difficult to convince a court that such a refusal was rational. The obvious conflict of interest that arises in the case, thus makes it very difficult for the President to be seen to act rationally – unless he implements all the remedial steps as imposed by the Public Protector.

Merely stating that the National Assembly has exonerated him, would also not be sufficient to convince a court that the President has acted rationally, because he is not constitutionally empowered to delegate the decision on whether to implement or not implement the remedial action to the National Assembly. If the President purports to do so he will be in breach of the separation of powers doctrine and the court will nullify his decision.

Of course, if the President provides “cogent reasons” for not implementing remedial steps imposed by the Public Protector and does so in a rational manner – given his constitutional duty to assist and protect the independence and effectiveness of the Public Protector – an eventual court challenge will exonerate him.

If not, the court will find that he had acted irrationally and thus unconstitutionally and will order him to implement the remedial action imposed by the Public Protector – as the High Court ordered the SABC to do in the recent judgment.

What is certain is that when the matter eventually reaches the court – as it almost certainly will – the decision by ANC members in the National Assembly to “exonerate” the President is not going to be of legal relevance.

What the High Court really said about the powers of the Public Protector

The Western Cape High Court this week provided the first authoritative interpretation of the nature of the powers of the Public Protector. Although the Constitutional Court will ultimately have to decide whether to endorse the approach taken by the High Court, I believe the High Court judgment got it more or less right. Here is why.

Because of the highly charged nature of the standoff between the Public Protector and the President about the latter’s failure adequately to consider and implement the remedial action imposed by her office regarding the state-funded renovations of President Jacob Zuma’s private home near Nkandla, a court judgment clarifying the powers of the Public Protector was always going to elicit much partisan comment and “spin” from those with a vested interest in the matter.

Those truly interested in the legal consequences of the judgment would do well to ignore the spin from members of the governing party and from the opposition about what the judgment actually means. Instead, it may be helpful to analyse the judgment in detail to ascertain what the court actually found. As is often the case with complex legal matters, the devil is in the detail.

In Democratic Alliance v SABC and Others Schippers J in the Western Cape High Court confirmed that the Public Protector is not a court of law and that the findings of her office and the remedial actions imposed by that office are hence not directly binding and enforceable.

The court found that because the office of the Public Protector is modelled on the institution of the Ombudsman (which is widely found in European democracies), the power of the office lies in its ability to investigate and make findings in a cost-effective manner and to ensure a change of behaviour of government officials and members of the executive through reasoned engagement.

Where government officials and members of the executive are persuaded through such reasoned engagement to change their behaviour, it will change the way they think and behave and this will have a lasting beneficial effect on the standard of governance in a country. (The court is silent on what may happen if – for political or personal financial reasons – organs of state refuse to engage in a reasoned manner with the findings and remedial action imposed by the Public Protector.)

The High Court did not consider the fact that South Africa – unlike most European democracies with an Ombudsman – is a constitutional democracy in which the Constitution (and not Parliament) is supreme. It also did not engage in detail in the wording of section 182 or the Public Protector Act to augment its detailed reasons why it held that the Public Protector’s findings are not binding.

It is of course possible (but it is far from certain) that the Constitutional Court will agree with the Public Protector that her office differs from that of the Ombudsman in the European countries referred to. I suspect it is for this reason that the Public Protector has indicated that she would like to have the decision of the High Court reviewed.

But I am not convinced that such a review will be successful and that the Constitutional Court will ultimately agree with the Public Protector. The reason for this is that the High Court judgment does provide for the effective implementation of the findings and remedial action imposed by the Public Protector, without giving her office the status of a court of law – which would be constitutionally problematic.

I say this because after finding that the remedial action imposed by the Public Protector does not have the status of a court order, the High Court proceeded to warn that:

the fact that the findings of and remedial action taken by the Public Protector are not binding does not mean that these findings and remedial action are mere recommendations, which an organ of state may accept or reject.

Consequently the findings of the Public Protector can never be ignored. Where an organ of state ignores the findings and remedial action by the Public Protector it would fail to comply with the constitutional duty to assist and protect the Public Protector to ensure its independence, impartiality, dignity and effectiveness.

Disregarding the findings and remedial action subverts the Public Protectors powers under s 182 of the Constitution.

It would not always be sufficient, stated the court, to rely on Parliament and its committees to ensure that the findings and remedial action of the Public Protector are not ignored and that they are implemented. Because Parliament is a political body, it does not provide an effective legal remedy to ensure that the findings and remedial action of the Public Protector are properly dealt with.

Ultimately, the Public Protector or one of the complainants in a case may approach a court to ensure that the findings and remedial action are not ignored and, in appropriate cases, a court may order the relevant organ of state to implement the findings and the remedial action imposed by the Public Protector.

This is exactly what the High Court did in the case under discussion, ordering the SABC to institute disciplinary proceedings against the newly appointed COO of the SABC, Mr Hlaudi Motsoeneng, as was directed by the Public Protector, and further ordering his suspension while the disciplinary process takes its course.

To ensure that the office of the Public Protector “is not undermined”, the organ of state against whom findings are made or who is directed to take remedial action, must carefully consider the findings and remedial action imposed by the Public Protector.

If the organ of state decides to reject any of the findings and remedial action of the Public Protector, this will only be legally valid if the organ of state can produce “cogent reasons” for doing so. If it fails to provide such cogent reasons, its refusal to implement remedial action would be irrational and unconstitutional.

Here is the crux of the matter: the organ of state would not be acting rationally if it rejected the findings and the remedial action imposed by the Public Protector merely because it prefers its own view of the relevant facts or the remedial action above those findings and remedial action imposed by the Public Protector.

Even when the organ of state reached its own view (that differs from that of the Public Protector) on rational grounds, this would not make the rejection rational and lawful. This is so because if an organ of state could refuse to accept and implement the findings and remedial action of the Public Protector merely because it happened to hold a different view of the matter, it would subvert the powers of the Public Protector and would fail to act in a manner that ensured the effectiveness of that office.

What the organ of state would have to show is that (irrespective of whether it agreed with the findings and remedial action or not) there were other “cogent reasons” for rejecting the findings of the Public Protector, given the constitutional duty on the organ of state to assist and protect the Public Protector to ensure its independence, impartiality, dignity and effectiveness.

The facts of the case under discussion illustrate this point and explain the “bite” hidden in the judgment regarding the obligations of those directed to take remedial action by the Public Protector. The Minister argued in her papers before the court that after the Public Protector made a finding that Mr Motsoeneng lied about his qualifications, the Minister looked at the evidence on which the Public Protector based her finding and came to a different conclusion.

Not only did the Minister not provide any reasons for coming to this decision, she also did not state that she had consider the other findings made against Mr Motsoeneng by the Public Protector. Neither did the SABC Board. The Minister and the Board in effect preferred their own view on Mr Motsoeneng above that of the view expressed by the Public Protector and did not bother to provide detailed reasons to show why this would be rational.

In the light of this failure to provide any reasons, let alone cogent reasons, for rejecting the findings and remedial actions imposed by the Public Protector regarding Mr Motsoeneng, the court found that the Minister’s and the SABC Board’s actions were “arbitrary and irrational and, consequently, constitutionally unlawful”.

The judgment mean that neither the President (nor Parliament) would be acting rationally if it decided that it preferred its own view of the facts and the appropriate remedial action regarding the Nkandla scandal above those imposed by the Public Protector and then rejected her findings and remedial action. Merely referring to the findings of the Ministerial Task Team would also not suffice.

This does not mean (in terms of the High Court judgment) the President could under no circumstances reject some of the findings and remedial action imposed by the Public Protector regarding the Nkandla matter. For example, where it would be impossible to implement the remedial action, it would be entirely rational for the President to refuse to implement the remedial action imposed by the Public Protector.

But given the fact that the President has a constitutional duty to assist and protect the Public Protector to ensure its independence, impartiality, dignity and effectiveness, it would not be sufficient for the President to say he had a different view from the Public Protector regarding her findings and remedial action about the Nkandla matter. If the President ignores some or all of the findings and remedial action by the Public Protector and does not provide cogent legal reasons for this (apart from having formed a different view about the matter), he would be acting irrationally and would be in breach of the Constitution.

I would think that it is therefore in the interest of President Zuma to respond in more detail to the findings and remedial action imposed by the Public Protector, to indicate whether he accepts or rejects each and every one of the findings and remedial action and, if he rejects a finding or a remedial action, to provide cogent legal reasons for doing so. If he fails to do so he would be in breach of his constitutional obligations – at least as understood by the judgment discussed here.

Spy tapes: Still no reason to drop charges

Extracts from the so-called “spy tapes” (for some inexplicable reason the complete version has not yet been made available) reveal that former Scorpions head Leonard McCarthy is both an inveterate gossip and a staunch Thabo Mbeki supporter. What the tapes do not provide are credible legal reasons for dropping more than 700 criminal charges against President Jacob Zuma. Here is why.

The practice of appointing politicians or politically connected individuals to leadership positions in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has seriously dented the credibility of the NPA. This politicisation of the NPA (as the spy tapes demonstrate, this process started long before the election of Jacob Zuma as president) has thus eroded its independence, its credibility and its effectiveness.

It is now inevitable that the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) (or the relevant Director of Public Prosecutions) who decides to charge or to drop charges against a politician or a politically connected businessman or woman will be accused of political motives.

When a politician is charged with any crime, I almost always suspect – rightly or wrongly – that said politician must have fallen out with the faction aligned to the president. (In the case of Julius Malema, he fell out with the faction aligned to the president and was subsequently kicked out of the party.) When serious accusations of criminality are made against a politician or businessman or woman and he or she is not charged or charges against him or her are dropped, I almost always suspect – again, rightly or wrongly – that this must be because of political interference in the NPA.

This does not mean that all allegations of corruption or fraud levelled at a politician or a politically connected businessman or woman holds water. Neither does it mean that those politicians and politically connected individuals who are charged have not acted in contravention of the law and that they should not be convicted and imprisoned for corruption. But sadly, this is not how the public discourse operates. Partly because of the politicisation of the NPA, some unscrupulous (but guilty) individuals use accusations of political conspiracy to avoid both criminal accountability and public censure.

In paranoid South Africa, the first thing a politician or controversial businessman or woman accused of a crime will do will be to allege that the allegations or criminal charges brought against him or her were due to a “political conspiracy”. Interestingly enough, few people fingered for corruption or other crimes ever claim that the evidence procured against them were fabricated. The logic seems to be that if political motives animated an investigation or a prosecution, it matters not that the accused committed the crimes. A political motive magically erases the corruption and the bribery and renders the accused innocent of all wrongdoing.

As the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) pointed out in 2009 in National Director of Public Prosecutions v Zuma when it overturned the judgment of Nicholson J (which itself was used as a pretext to remove then President Thabo Mbeki from office) “it is generally accepted that any prosecution authority ought to be free from executive or political control”, but “this was and is not necessarily the norm in Anglo-American countries”. In many countries the Attorney-General (called the NDPP in South Africa) is a political appointee – often at ministerial level – but is nevertheless required to act without any interference from the executive.

In South Africa, the position is not much different. The NPA is headed by a NDPP who is a political appointee (appointed by the president for a fixed term) and although section 179 of the Constitution states that national legislation must ensure that the NPA exercises its functions without fear, favour or prejudice, it also states that the Minister of Justice must exercise final responsibility over the NPA. The NDPP must also determine a prosecution policy (in terms of which decisions to charge or to drop charges against suspects should be made) with the concurrence of the Minister of Justice. As the SCA stated in the Zuma judgment:

These provisions may appear to conflict but, as the Namibian Supreme Court held in relation to comparable provisions in its Constitution, they are not incompatible. It held… that although the Minister may not instruct the NPA to prosecute or to decline to prosecute or to terminate a pending prosecution, the Minister is entitled to be kept informed in respect of all prosecutions initiated or to be initiated which might arouse public interest or involve important aspects of legal or prosecutorial authority.

This means that members of the prosecuting authority (including the politically appointed NDPP) must serve “impartially” and must exercise, carry out or perform their powers, duties and functions “in good faith and without fear, favour or prejudice” subject only to the Constitution and the law. At the same time the NDPP has a duty when so requested to keep the Minister of Justice informed about his or her work. However, the Minister has no power to interfere in prosecutorial decisions of the NDPP or any other member of the NPA.

Moreover, the NPA Act prohibits anyone (including the minister or the president) from interfering “improperly” with the NPA in the performance of its duties and functions. If the minister or anyone else were to interfere in prosecutorial decisions they would be committing a criminal offence.

As the SCA pointed out, the Constitution prohibits members of the NPA (including the NDPP) from taking account of political considerations when making prosecutorial decisions and also prohibits the Minister of Justice or any other member of the executive from interfering with a decision to prosecute or not to prosecute a suspect.

Where politicians or politically aligned individuals like Leonard McCarthy, Bulelani Ngcuka or Menzi Simelane are appointed to the leadership of the NPA, the temptation will be great to blur these lines and to take account of political considerations when making prosecutorial decisions. After Vusi Pikoli was fired for not taking into account political considerations when charging Jackie Selebi, NPA bosses (even those without strong political loyalties) must be acutely aware that their careers may be terminated if they stick to their principles and follow the Constitution. More worryingly, even where the lines between the political considerations and prosecutorial considerations are not blurred, the perception will inevitably arise that political interference occurred when a controversial prosecutorial decision is made.

But what happens if – as was the case with the prosecution of Jacob Zuma – some members of the NPA who may or may not have been involved in any decisions about his prosecution displayed a clear bias against him?

Recall that Mr Zuma (as he then was) and his lawyers never argued that there were no legal grounds to prosecute Zuma. Nor did they argue that all the evidence against him were fabricated or invented as part of a political conspiracy to frame him for corruption. Although they argued that they would try and block the admissibility of certain evidence (including the “encrypted fax” which demonstrated that a bribe was solicited on behalf of Zuma), Mr Zuma never argued that he had not received any money and that he had not done any favours for those from whom he received money. Instead he argued on procedural grounds that despite the evidence he could not receive a fair trial.

The SCA in its Zuma judgment was pretty clear that such arguments would seldom be of any legal relevance. The SCA pointed out that a prosecution could never be used solely to achieve an “ulterior purpose”. For example, prosecuting a person without any prospect of securing a conviction with the sole purpose of putting him out of business would be unacceptable. But where credible evidence existed that might secure a conviction and where the purpose of the prosecution was at least in part to secure such a conviction, this would not taint the prosecution.

A prosecution is not wrongful merely because it is brought for an improper purpose. It will only be wrongful if, in addition, reasonable and probable grounds for prosecuting are absent, something not alleged by Mr Zuma and which in any event can only be determined once criminal proceedings have been concluded. The motive behind the prosecution is irrelevant because, as Schreiner JA said in connection with arrests, the best motive does not cure an otherwise illegal arrest and the worst motive does not render an otherwise legal arrest illegal. The same applies to prosecutions.

In the Zuma judgment (written before the so called spy tapes came to light) the SCA stated that there was no “ulterior purpose” in prosecuting Zuma and the prosecution could thus not be tainted. The spy tapes did not change this because as the SCA stated in rejecting Zuma’s argument that the prosecution must be set aside because it was tainted by a political motive:

In the absence of evidence that the prosecution of Mr Zuma was not intended to obtain a conviction the reliance on this line of authority is misplaced as was the focus on motive.

No one has ever argued that Zuma was prosecuted without the intention of securing a conviction. This means that the reasons offered by the then acting NDPP for dropping charges against Jacob Zuma do not seem to be in line with the law and may well be irrational. This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that, in terms of the Constitution, the prosecution policy must be observed in the prosecution process. When deciding to prosecute or not to prosecute or to drop charges against a suspect, the decision-maker must do so in compliance with the prosecution policy.

The prosecution policy lists a range of factors prosecutors should take into account when deciding whether or not to institute a prosecution: the strength of the state’s case, the admissibility of the state’s evidence, the credibility of the state’s witness, the strength of the defence’s case, and the extent to which the prosecution would be in the public interest. Curiously, the acting NDPP did not refer to this prosecution policy when he announced the dropping of the charges against Jacob Zuma. This means that the policy that – constitutionally – ought to have guided the decision to drop charges against President Zuma was not considered at all.

This means that it will be difficult for the NPA to convince a court that the dropping of charges against President Zuma was legally valid. Of course, whether too much time has now elapsed since the commission of the alleged crimes to allow for a fair trial is another question. But that would be a question for a court (and not the NPA) to decide.

Spare a thought for ANC Nkandla committee members

The ad hoc committee of the National Assembly (NA) formed to deal with the fall-out from the Nkandla scandal has all but collapsed after all opposition parties withdrew from it at the end of last week. But why was it set up at all if – as all committee members agree – the committee has no power to review and set aside the findings and remedial action imposed by the public protector?

Neither the Constitution nor the relevant legislation specifically states that the NA has an obligation to consider and deal with all reports of the public protector. But this does not mean that the NA does not (in certain circumstances) have a constitutional duty to call the president, other members of the executive, other politicians or members of the public to account for findings contained in a report of the public protector.

When a report of the public protector deals with a breach of the executive members ethics code, the Executive Members Ethics Act does require the President “within a reasonable time, but not later than 14 days after receiving a report” from the public protector “submit a copy of the report and any comments thereon, together with a report on any action taken or to be taken in regard thereto” to the NA.

However, the Act is silent on how the NA is supposed to deal with this report from the president.

When a report (or aspects of a report) of the public protector does not deal with a breach of the ethics code, there is no specific obligation on the president to report the findings of the public protector to the NA.

However, the speaker can request the public protector to provide the NA with one of her reports. The public protector can also (on her own initiative) submit one of her reports to the NA when she deems it necessary or if she believes it requires the urgent intervention of the NA.

For example, where a report finds that the president is in serious breach of the Constitution or the law, the public protector may submit the report to the NA with a view of allowing the NA to start impeachment proceedings against the president.

As I pointed out above, this does not mean that the NA is not obliged to engage with reports by the public protector regarding breaches of the ethics code and of maladministration and corruption by the president or any other member of the Executive in cases where a report is not submitted directly to the NA.

Section 55(2) of the Constitution imposes a positive constitutional obligation on the NA to hold members of the executive – including the president – accountable for their actions and to maintain oversight over their activities. This accountability goes beyond the performance of their formal functions and duties and includes accountability for a serious violation of the law, serious misconduct or serious breach of the Constitution. This is so because the NA can impeach a president who is guilty of such unlawful actions or misconduct.

Section 92(2) confirms the powers of the NA to hold the president and his executive accountable by stating that all members of the cabinet (which includes the president) are individually and collectively accountable to Parliament for the exercise of their powers and performance of their functions.

The NA is empowered to summons any person (including the president, other cabinet ministers or any official from any political party or any private citizen) to appear before it or to give evidence and to produce any documents relating to the accountability and oversight mandate of the NA. A person who is summonsed to appear before the NA or one of its committees is obliged to appear and produce any documents requested by the committee. A failure to do so may result in a conviction for contempt.

Moreover, section 181(3) imposes another obligation on the NA. Like all other organs of state it is constitutionally required, “through legislative and other measures” to “assist and protect” the public protector “to ensure the independence, impartiality, dignity and effectiveness of these institutions’.

What does this mean?

The NA is constitutionally obliged to hold the president or other member of the executive accountable for how they respond to the findings and remedial actions imposed by the public protector in the wake of findings of maladministration, unethical conduct in breach of the code or corruption.

Where the president, other member of the executive or other individuals comply fully with the remedial action imposed by the public protector, the NA would have no need to engage with those responsible for implementing her findings, regardless of whether the matter deals with a breach of the ethics code or with other forms of maladministration or corruption.

But where the president, other member of the executive or other responsible individuals fail to comply with the remedial action imposed by the public protector, the NA has a constitutional duty to hold the responsible parties accountable for what may turn out to be a serious breach of the Constitution.

At the very least, the NA must require the president (or other members of the executive) to explain to the relevant NA committee why he or she has failed to implement the remedial action imposed by the public protector and why this failure to comply is rational and hence lawful.

As the president has so far refused to provide the NA with comprehensive reasons for failing to adhere fully to the remedial action imposed by the public protector (in a letter to the NA the president declined to comment at all about the findings of the public protector and whether he deems the findings to be correct and appropriate), the NA may first provide the president with another opportunity to do so and if he again fails to provide comprehensive reasons for his refusal to comply, the NA has a duty to summons him before the NA to account for this failure.

This would be constitutionally required because it must be obvious that any failure by the president to comply with the remedial action imposed by the public protector in terms of section 182(1)(c) of the Constitution would prima facie constitute a breach of section 181(3) of the Constitution.

This is so because such a failure would almost certainly undermine the effectiveness of the public protector – instead of protecting it as the Constitution requires. After all, why would anyone in the world comply with the remedial action imposed by the public protector if the man right at the top refuses to engage with the remedial action in a systematic, diligent and rational manner?

The NA could, of course, also summons the president to appear before it to ask why the president had seemingly undermined the dignity, independence and effectiveness of the public protector by failing to answer a majority of the questions posed to him by the public protector. This failure to answer the questions of the public protector constitutes a prima facie criminal offence as the Public Protector Act says it is a criminal offence not to answer the questions posed to you by the public protector.

But this would be additional to the obligation set out above: in the absence of impeachment proceedings it is not the main constitutional reason why the ad hoc committee of the NA is obliged to engage with the Nkandla report. The main obligation of the ad hoc committee is to hold the president accountable for the manner in which he responded (or failed to respond) to the report.

Where no satisfactory explanation is provided to the NA by the president, the NA could institute a vote of no confidence in the president or his cabinet in terms of section 102 or could start impeachment proceedings against the president in terms of section 89 of the Constitution. If such a move succeeds, the president would be removed from office – the ultimate form of accountability.

As far as the public protector’s Nkandla report is concerned, it appears that none of this will be done, which means the NA will not comply with its constitutional duties regarding the Nkandla report.

This is not surprising. In fact, if I had been a member of the governing party serving on the ad hoc committee I would probably also have been extremely reluctant to hold the president accountable and to comply with my constitutional duties to do so.

The reasons for this are obvious.

Where the members of the governing party serving in the NA believe that no serious electoral harm will be done to their party if they fail to hold the president accountable, they will almost certainly act in a manner aligned with the interests of the president. From their perspective, it would be madness for them to act against the leader of their party (or against other senior members of their party who serve in cabinet and retains the confidence of the president) and to hold them accountable.

This is so because they might fear to act against the leader of the party, who may well possess incriminating information about their financial affairs or private lives that may be leaked to the media, SARS or the NPA. The leadership of the party will also be able to sabotage their careers by having them “redeployed” from the NA if they displease the leadership.

Some might be protecting the president out of personal loyalty to him. Others may harbour genuine fears that complying with the Constitution will further damage the image of the political party they are loyal to and love, and which they rely on for their jobs. Yet others may not have an ethical compass and may genuinely believe that there is nothing wrong with the use of public funds to personally enrich the president.

This means that – as is the case in many other democracies – the constitutional accountability measures break down where there are no negative political consequences for the governing party who fails to fulfil its accountability mandate.

The day that voters send a signal to the governing party that it will be punished at the polls for failing to hold the executive accountable will be the day this dynamic will change. Until then, spare a thought for the ANC members on the ad hoc committee who are caught between doing the right thing and doing what (for the moment) appears to be in their own best interest.

The Speaker’s dilemma

The raucous, often childish and rude, and somewhat chaotic debate on the motion of no confidence introduced by some opposition parties against the current speaker of parliament failed to engage in any meaningful manner with principled questions about the proper role of a speaker in a Constitutional democracy like our own. Leaving aside the question of whether Baleka Mbete is a good speaker or not, it may be helpful to ask what the appropriate role is a speaker ought to play in the South African parliament.

Should the speaker of the South African parliament be impartial? Should he or she ceremoniously distance him or herself from the party he or she belongs to after election as speaker in order to avoid a perception of bias and unfairness? Should the speaker resign as a member of the party’s caucus and escape its discipline?

Or should the speaker serve in a partisan capacity to advance the interests and political agenda of the majority party in parliament in order to promote the interests of the majority of voters? Should the speaker use his or her power to shield the members of the executive from the partisan attacks and questions from the opposition?

The text of the South African Constitution does not give an explicit answer these questions. But, as I point out below, the Constitutional Court has strongly suggested our Constitution requires adherence to the former rather than the latter model for the speaker.

The tradition in Westminster style parliaments is that a speaker cuts all ties with the party he or she belongs to after elevation to speaker and serves in a non-partisan and absolutely impartial manner to serve the interest of all the members of parliament (so serving the interests of all voters – not only those who voted for the governing party).

However, speakers in other systems serve in a more partisan capacity. For example, the speaker of the US House of Representatives is actively involved in advancing the interests and legislative agenda of the majority party (although he or she seldom preside over debates).

In terms of section 52(1) of the South African Constitution (read with Schedule 3) the members of the national assembly (NA) must elect a speaker in a secret ballot from among its members. Section 52(4) also allows the members of the NA to remove a speaker from office by adoption of a motion to that effect.

Only a member of the NA can serve as speaker. Given the electoral system through which members of the NA are elected, this means that the speaker must belong to one of the political parties represented in the NA.

In terms of the rules of the NA the speaker has considerable powers. He or she is the administrative head of parliament and either the speaker or another presiding officer preside over debates in the NA. The speaker has final authority over the interpretation and application of the rules of the NA (subject to control by the judiciary). He or she is also allowed to give a ruling or frame a rule in respect of any eventuality for which these rules do not provide.

In terms of section 90 the speaker may also (in very exceptional circumstances) serve as acting president of the country until a new president is elected.

As the Constitutional Court pointed out in Oriani-Ambrosini v Sisulu our Constitution requires MPs to make decisions (usually through majority vote) to pass legislation; adopt resolution; determine the time and duration of the sittings of the Assembly; elect a speaker and a deputy speaker; elect officers to assist the speaker; remove a speaker; and determine its processes through the making of rules.

In a democratic system of government, the members of the majority party therefore have the power to decide whether any of these decisions are passed or not (unless super majorities are required for a decision in which case the support of several parties may be required). It is the essence of majority rule that the majority party has a conclusive say in the decisions taken by parliament.

This does not necessarily mean that the South African Constitution envisages a system in which only the members of the majority party receive a fair chance to state their views and to influence decisions. There is a difference between the principle that the majority party rule when important decisions are taken and the principle that the majority party rule during deliberations that may eventually lead to a majority decision.

As Sachs J stated in Democratic Alliance v Masondo: “

[T]he Constitution does not envisage a mathematical form of democracy, where the winner takes all until the next vote-counting exercise occurs. Rather, it contemplates a pluralistic democracy where continuous respect is given to the rights of all to be heard and have their views considered…

Because the South African Constitution establishes an “open and deliberative” form of democracy it emphasises the need for dignified and meaningful participation by all MPs in the activities of parliament. As Sachs explained our form of democracy:

is calculated to produce better outcomes through subjecting laws and governmental action to the test of critical debate, rather than basing them on unilateral decision-making. It should be underlined that the responsibility for serious and meaningful deliberation and decision-making rests not only on the majority, but on minority groups as well. In the end, the endeavours of both majority and minority parties should be directed not towards exercising (or blocking the exercise) of power for its own sake, but at achieving a just society where, in the words of the Preamble, ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it…’

There are good reasons why the Constitution does not (in theory) allow the majority party to use its majority or its control over decisions such as who should be elected speaker, to silence the voices of those MPs who represent the millions of voters who have not voted for the majority party.

As Chief Justice Mogoeng pointed out in the Oriani-Ambrosini judgment:

South Africa’s shameful history is one marked by authoritarianism, not only of the legal and physical kind, but also of an intellectual, ideological and philosophical nature. The apartheid regime sought to dominate all facets of human life. It was determined to suppress dissenting views, with the aim of imposing hegemonic control over thoughts and conduct, for the preservation of institutionalised injustice. It is this unjust system that South Africans, through their Constitution, so decisively seek to reverse by ensuring that this country fully belongs to all those who live in it.

The Constitution is (at least partly) aimed at preventing a recurrence of the horrors of the apartheid past. Having learnt from this past, the drafters of the Constitution also sought to prevent any recurrence of the undemocratic practices that were embedded in the apartheid state and helped to sustain it for so long. That is why the Constitution prohibits the suppression of dissent, criticism or protest against those in government.

What these Constitutional Court judgments emphasise is that ours is a democracy that values fair and equal participation in debate and in the processes that lead to the decisions that are ultimately taken by parliament. While the majority ultimately decides what the decision is, the minority must have a fair opportunity to take part in the deliberations that lead to a decision.

The judgments suggest that the rules of parliament should be formulated clearly and with sufficient precision and in in enough detail to prevent the rules from being abused by the presiding officer. The rules must be aimed at ensuring fair and meaningful participation of all MPs in the debates in parliament and in the other activities of parliament.

I suspect the rules as currently employed by presiding officers are far too vague and open to abuse to fulfil this basic Constitutional requirement. For example, the practice of ruling that statements must be withdrawn because they are “unparliamentary” has led in the past to the silencing of dissent and the asking of difficult questions. Anything can in theory be ruled to be “unparliamentary”, which means it is a term that can be abused to silent dissent.

The Constitutional Court judgments also suggest that our Constitution requires the speaker or any other presiding officer to act fairly and impartially at all times – also when he or she presides over a debate in parliament. Not only must the speaker be impartial and unbiased, he or she must act in a manner that would avoid the apprehension of bias or partisanship on his or her part.

If a speaker or other presiding officers are not impartial and are not manifestly seen to be impartial, parliament will not be able to function in a manner that promotes pluralistic democracy (the kind of democracy in which dissenting voices are heard loud and clear). This would be in conflict with the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court.

However, this leaves the speaker of the South African parliament in a difficult position. As the speaker is elected to the NA on a party list and can easily be removed from the NA by his or her party, there will be strong pressure on him or her to serve the party and the executive and not the parliament as an institution.

In our system it is therefore very difficult for a speaker to be truly impartial and unbiased. For a speaker who is a member of the governing party this pressure will be even more severe as section 5.4 of the Constitution of ANC states that:

ANC members who hold elective office in any sphere of governance at national, provincial or local level are required to be members of the appropriate caucus, to function within its rules and to abide by its decisions under the general provisions of this Constitution and the Constitutional structures of the ANC.

Whether this section of the ANC Constitution is compatible with the Constitutional Court judgments mentioned above (as well as theRamakatsa judgment) is open to debate. But as long as the Constitutional Court does not declare the section unconstitutional, it places any speaker from the governing party in the impossible position of having to serve the Constitution and to act impartially while also enforcing the decisions of the party.

I therefore have sympathy with the speaker. She has to serve two conflicting masters – something that is currently impossible to do.

For this reasons I believe the rules of the NA (and if needs be the provisions of the Constitution) should be reviewed to allow for the speaker to become a non-partisan and impartial officer of parliament as a whole, serving to protect and promote the pluralistic democracy in a manner that will ultimately be to the benefit of all South Africans.

The rules should prohibit a speaker from being a member of his or her party’s caucus and from serving in any position in his or her party. The rules should also protect the speaker by prohibiting his or her party from removing him or her from parliament for the duration of the parliament.

If the rules are not amended to secure the impartiality and independence of the speaker, parliament will continue to provide us with strident but ultimately vacuous entertainment – to the detriment of our democracy.

Can Parliament act against EFF MPs for demanding answers in Parliament?

Can members of National Assembly (NA) who belong to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) be suspended from Parliament for breaching the rules of the National Assembly? And if they “disrupt” proceedings by insisting that the speaker acts impartially and that the President answers the questions validly posed to him, can they be arrested – as suggested by a slightly unhinged Gwede Mantashe last week?

Parliament is supposed to be the engine room of South Africa’s democracy. Apart from considering and passing (constitutionally valid) legislation, Parliament is also required to hold the executive accountable, to oversee its activities and to provide a platform for debate about important issues of the day.

For members of the majority party there is an inherent conflict between fulfilling these constitutional obligations as elected representatives (and hence acting as servants of the people) and submitting to the strict discipline of the party who they represent in Parliament and following the instructions of their party leaders.

How do you hold the members of government accountable if they are leaders of your party who may have a decisive say in whether your name appears on the electoral list at the next election? How do you insist on accountability when you know Gwede Mantashe might call you in for a tongue lashing if you dare to ask the right questions? How do you insist on holding the executive to account if you run the risk of being “redeployed” as third assistant secretary to the South African ambassador of Tjkitjikistan?

Nevertheless, section 58 and 71 of the Constitution states that both Cabinet members and members of the National Assembly (NA) and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) enjoy enjoys freedom of speech in Parliament and in its committees, “subject to its rules and orders”.

This means freedom of expression can only be limited if authorised by the rules and orders of Parliament. It cannot be limited by arbitrary rulings of the speaker not explicitly authorised by the rules and orders of Parliament.

As the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) ruled in the De Lille judgments many years ago, customs that apply in the British Parliament do not form part of South Africa’s Parliamentary rules and cannot be applied here without being incorporated into the rules and orders of our own Parliament.

The need for clearly defined, precise and narrowly tailored written rules on what kinds of speech can be limited in Parliament is important in a system like ours in which the speaker is neither independent nor impartial but a political leader of the majority party with a vested interest in protecting members of government against any accountability and criticism.

In the absence of clear rules, the speaker will have a blank cheque to make-up rules or to misapply vague rules to stop debate and to protect the members of cabinet from being held accountable by MPs who have a constitutional duty to do so.

It is for this reason that many of the rulings made by the speaker disallowing so-called “unparliamentary statements” by MPs are probably illegal and unconstitutional. There is no rule or order that authorises the speaker to limit “unparliamentary” statements and when she does make such a ruling it is therefore not authorised by law and almost certainly infringes on section 58 (or 71 if done by the Chairperson of the NCOP) of the Constitution.

Besides, the notion of “unparliamentary statements” is so vague and incomprehensible that it all but invites the speaker and other presiding officers to invoke it to stifle debate and free speech in Parliament in order to protect the members of the executive from criticism, scrutiny and accountability.

However, the rules of Parliament as well as the Powers, Privileges, and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act do regulate some forms of speech and conduct in Parliament.

Thus rule 49 of the NA requires members of the NA to take their seats when the presiding officer rises to speak. Rule 50 allows the presiding officer to order a member to stop his or her speech when the member persists in irrelevance or repetition of arguments. Rule 63 prohibits members from using “offensive or unbecoming language”. Rule 66 prohibits members from reflecting “upon the competence or honour” of a judge or a member of a Chapter 9 institution.

It is important to note that rule 72 of the NA makes clear that every member of the NA has a right to raise a point of order and may speak to do so. (Where a speaker refuses to hear a member who raises a point of order – as she did during the debate in which President Zuma refused to answer questions put to him by the EFF – she is in breach of the rules which she is supposed to uphold.)

Despite this, the speaker does have broad powers. She has a right to order a member to withdraw from the chamber where there is a breach of the rules or, in serous cases, to suspend the member. If the speaker is presiding this cannot be done after the fact, but must be done while the house is sitting. This means the speaker does not have the authority to suspend members of the EFF for what happened in the House last week, as she did not suspend them at the time – she merely suspended proceedings of the House, as she was entitled to do.

This does not mean that members of the EFF may not still potentially face legitimate suspension, as the Powers, Privileges and Immunities Act provides for suspension of members for up to 30 days and for a docking of an MPs pay for up to one month if they are found guilty of contempt of Parliament.

Contempt includes, amongst other things, improperly interfering with or impeding the exercise or performance by Parliament or a House or committee of its authority or functions; assaulting or threatening another MP; while Parliament or a House or committee is meeting, creating or taking part in any disturbance within the precincts; bribing MPs or taking a bribe; or hindering or obstructing a staff member in the execution of the staff member’s duties.

A “disturbance” is defined as “any act which interferes with or disrupts or which is likely to interfere with or disrupt the proceedings of Parliament or a House or committee”.

This definition is vague: does it include statements made by MPs in which they raise points of order to demand that the President answer questions posed to him, when the President is illegally protected by the speaker from having to answer? And if it is a disturbance, is it an improper disturbance as required by the Act? Is an improper disturbance not only related to threats, violence and destruction of property and not to disturbances caused by the exercise of freedom of speech by MPs?

Given the fact that the Constitution guarantees the right of MPs to free speech in Parliament, these provisions have to be given a narrow interpretation to limit their scope. It may therefore very well be that an impartial body would find that what the EFF MPs did, does not amount to an improper disturbance of Parliament.

But who exactly caused the disturbance in the case relating to the (non) answering of questions by President Jacob Zuma in the NA? Was it the President who refused to answer the questions posed to him? Was it the speaker who bent the rules of Parliament to protect the President? Or was it the EFF members who refused to obey the rulings of the speaker and insisted that the president answer the questions? Or was it perhaps all three groups?

In terms of section 12 of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities Act, a standing committee of the NA (the Powers and Privileges Committee) must now decide these questions. An ad hoc Committee of the NA cannot decide on these questions as this would be in breach of section 12 of the Act read with section 191 of the rules of the NA.

The Act requires this committee to “enquire into the matter in accordance with a procedure that is reasonable and procedurally fair” and then to “table a report on its findings and recommendations in the House”. The House can then act against individual MPs if the standing Committee on Powers and Privileges makes a finding against them, based on the relevant facts, after having conducted a fair hearing.

It would obviously not be procedurally fair for the Committee to prejudge the matter or for the majority of the Committee members from the governing party to make decisions on the “guilt” or “innocence” of the EFF MPs based on the instructions of their party leaders. Where a perception has been created that the matter has been prejudged by some members of the Committee the fairness of the hearing will be called into question.

Given the statements made by some ANC leaders (and especially the Secretary General of the ANC) calling for strong action against EFF MPs, it is difficult to see how the Committee can actually conduct a reasonable and procedurally fair inquiry with ANC MPs present on the Committee. The Chief Whip of the ANC may very well have created a reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of ANC members of the Committee because of his premature statements about what happened in a branch of government.

Ironically, by commenting so hastily on the matter, the ANC leaders may well have provided the EFF members with a valid legal argument to nullify the work of the standing committee.

Lastly section 11 of the Act states that:

A person who creates or takes part in any disturbance in the precincts while Parliament or a House or committee is meeting, may be arrested and removed from the precincts, on the order of the Speaker or the Chairperson or a person designated by the Speaker or Chairperson, by a staff member or a member of the security services.

If this section applies to MPs as well as other persons who are not MPs and if “disturbance” includes a disturbance made through rowdy and unpopular speech, the section is clearly unconstitutional. This is so because section 58 and 71 of the Constitution prohibits MPs from ever being arrested for anything any of them has said in either of the houses of Parliament or its committees (even if what they have said was disrespectful, disruptive or in breach of the rules and the orders of Parliament).

These sections are not limited in any manner, providing MPs with an absolute right against arrest for what they say in Parliament.

But the section could also be read in conformity with the Constitution by reading it as not applying to MPs and I suggest this is the correct interpretation of the section. It is for that reason that the statement by Gwede Mantashe that EFF MPs should have been arrested and any suggestion by so called “Security Cluster” Ministers that MPs could be arrested for what they say in Parliament is dangerous and unconstitutional nonsense.

All this does raise an important question: has the time not come to consider the need to appoint a more independent and impartial person as speaker to apply the rules fairly and in a more even handed manner?

Should an MP who is elected as speaker not give up membership of the party or any leadership positions in that party for the duration of his or her speakership? Surely, a more fair and impartial speaker would instil more respect from all MPs, would ensure impartial rulings and may well prevent a recurrence of the kinds of actions taken by EFF MPs last week.

Nkandla: Zuma’s convoluted series of Houdini moves

Over the past week the governing party released a veritable sea of red herrings into the political pond (more like a cesspit) in an attempt to avoid confronting the embarrassing but incontrovertible fact that President Jacob Zuma violated the Executive Ethics Code and improperly benefited when taxpayers funded the building of a swimming pool, a visitors’ centre, an amphitheatre, a cattle kraal, a chicken run and other non-security related renovations at his private Nkandla palace. It’s time to cut through the verbiage and explain what must happen next.

The Public Protector is the only independent constitutional institution that has conducted a comprehensive and impartial investigation into the Nkandla scandal. That institution produced a 447-page report clearly indicating what went wrong with the Nkandla palace upgrade and clearly setting out the remedial steps that must be taken to correct the wrongdoing.

The findings and remedial action imposed by the Public Protector are not popular in some quarters, but like all factual findings made by an independent constitutional institution they are not subject to changes made by the majority of MP’s in Parliament. If that were so, then the Public Protector would be irrelevant – just as the courts would be irrelevant if their decisions could be amended by Parliament.

What must happen next – in accordance with the Constitution – is that these remedial steps must be implemented forthwith (“speedily and without delay”, as the Constitution would have it). The rest is irrelevant political noise.

The Ministerial Task Team who first “investigated” the Nkandla scandal was not an independent body and did not conduct an impartial investigation. It was a body of people tasked with investigating their own bosses.

If Oscar Pistorius’ uncle Arnold Pistorius had been asked to rule on whether Oscar was guilty of murder, uncle Arnold’s “ruling” would probably have been more credible than the report produced by the Ministerial Task Team.

Such a “ruling” by uncle Arnold would also have had the same legal status as the Ministerial Task Team investigation and report. The investigation of the Ministerial Task Team was an informal one, not explicitly authorised by any law or any constitutional provision. It therefore has no legal standing. As a public relations exercise it might have had some value, but in law it is irrelevant.

The Special Investigative Unit (SIU) is also not an independent and impartial constitutional body. Because it is not independent and because its functions stray too far from that associated with that usually performed by a judge (who does have to be impartial) the Constitutional Court ruled that a judge couldn’t head the SIU.

In terms of the SIU Act its head is appointed by the president and can at any time be removed by the president. The SIU head thus serves at the pleasure of the president and he would therefore be foolish in the extreme to make any finding against President Zuma if he wanted to remain in office.

In any case, the SIU can only investigate matters when he or she is authorised to do so by the president. When the president authorised the SIU to investigate the renovations at Nkandla he (unsurprisingly) did not authorise the SIU to investigate whether President Zuma had breached the Ethics Code or had improperly benefited from the renovations when taxpayers funded the building of a swimming pool, a visitors’ centre, an amphitheatre, a cattle kraal, a chicken run and other non-security related renovations.

The SIU can institute civil proceedings against those it has investigated to recover damages or losses incurred by the state. It can therefore go after the architect and others who allegedly unduly benefited from the Nkandla renovations. The SIU should do so forthwith. However, even if it had wanted to (which would have been career suicide for its head) the SIU cannot hold the president to account for breaches of the Ethics Act or for improperly benefiting from the Nkandla palace renovations because President Zuma ensured that it could not investigate him.

The ad hoc committee of Parliament also has a role to play in holding the president and others accountable. In this it is to be assisted by the Public Protector, the president and other Ministers and functionaries found to have acted in breach of their legal and constitutional duties. Its role is to ensure that the president, the various ministers and the functionaries comply with the remedial action provided for by the Public Protector.

The ad hoc committee must therefore study the remedial action imposed by the Public Protector with a view to hold the executive accountable for complying with the remedial action. To this end it is empowered by section 56 of the Constitution to summon the president or any minister to appear before it to give evidence on oath or affirmation, or to produce documents (including the documents the president unlawfully refused to provide to the Public Protector). It can also require the president or any minister to report to it on any aspect of the scandal.

This it can do to ensure that the president, the relevant ministers and other functionaries comply with the remedial action imposed by the Public Protector’s report.

What the ad hoc committee cannot do is to either purport to review and reject the findings and remedial actions of the Public Protector. Chapter 9 institutions are independent and as Parliament itself found in an ad hoc Report on Chapter 9 bodies, neither the legislature nor the executive may interfere with the core business of a Chapter 9 institution.

The core business of the Public Protector is to investigate maladministration and breaches of the Ethics Code and to direct that remedial action be taken.

This means that the ad hoc committee has no authority to either review or ignore the findings and remedial action of the Public Protector. If it purports to review its findings and to replace the findings with different ones, it would be acting ultra vires and hence illegally. If it ignored the findings that are relevant for its oversight and accountability functions it would act irrationally and hence unlawfully.

This is made obvious with reference to an example from another Chapter 9 institution, the Electoral Commission. If the Electoral Commission declares candidate A from an opposition party to be the winner in a constituency in a local government by-election, a committee of Parliament cannot review that decision and decide that candidate B of the governing party should be elected instead. If it purported to do this it would represent a fundamental attack on democracy and would represent a flagrant unconstitutional power grab on behalf of the majority party in Parliament.

Similarly, if the ad hoc committee purports to review and set aside the findings of the Public Protector because the findings are unpopular with President Zuma, then the ad hoc committee would be launching a full frontal unconstitutional attack against the Constitution. In order to protect our democracy a court would have no problem in declaring such action by the ad hoc committee unconstitutional.

The various persons and bodies will probably not comply with the steps as set out above. In order to shield the president from the consequences of his own actions and to endorse the unlawful self-enrichment of the president and his family at taxpayers’ expense, the law and the Constitution (as well as Parliament) will probably be undermined and degraded. All because the president refuses to pay back the money that he owes to South African citizens.