Sisulu under fire for ‘dodging accountability’ by refusing to answer MPs’ questions
Cabinet minister Lindiwe Sisulu withdrew a parliamentary reply after it won her adverse publicity and has since cited a rule which does not appear to exist for refusing to answer DA MPs.
As water minister, Sisulu used the rule - which applies to questions but not answers - at least nine times in response to written questions, according to a new analysis published by the Parliamentary Monitoring Group.
Researcher Rebecca Sibanda said the stratagem was an example of how ministers attempted to subvert the system of parliamentary questions, with potential negative consequences for accountability and transparency.
Sisulu's reply to a question DA MP Emma Powell posed in December 2019 led to news reports that she had hired ex-spy boss Mo Shaik and former National Prosecuting Authority head Menzi Simelane as special advisers, at a cost of R1.9m each.
Sibanda said: “A significant amount of negative attention was brought to the door of the minister. Following the media coverage, [Powell] received a notification from the questions office informing her that the written reply upon which she had based the media campaign had been withdrawn by the minister.”
Sisulu replaced it with a reply omitting the names of staff in her office and members of the national rapid response task team.
Declining to answer DA MPs' subsequent questions about appointments and individuals, she said: “I am constrained and prohibited by the document titled 'Guide to Parliamentary Questions in the National Assembly' from providing the honourable member with name(s) ...”
Sibanda said neither the questions office nor the office of the leader of government business, Deputy President David Mabuza, could find evidence of any such guideline for parliamentary answers.
“The intention to prevent the publishing of names in the manner in which it has been used thus far has the potential to shield other members of the executive from efforts to secure accountability and transparency by MPs,” she said.
“This would be in direct contradiction of the powers extended to the legislature to do exactly this.”
Powell told TimesLIVE Sisulu's “failure to disclose the names of companies and individuals that have been benefactors of state resources, and who may have provided substandard work or been subject to allegations of impropriety, makes a mockery of the very processes designed to safeguard our democracy”.
TimesLIVE asked Steve Motale, Sisulu's spokesperson in her new job as tourism minister, for his reaction to Sibanda's remarks but he did not respond.
Almost 3,100 written questions were submitted in 2020, according to Sibanda's report, which examines the effectiveness of written questions and answers as an oversight mechanism.
Problems she highlighted include the lack of consequences when ministers either ignore questions or fail to answer them within the 10 working days they are allowed.
Sibanda said replies are often “honest and comprehensive, particularly where ministers (and their staff) take pride in providing quality answers, regardless of the source of the question”.
However, “the quality of the replies can take a sharp drop where the minister and MP have a less than amicable relationship, or the MP has been overtly critical of the minister and/or that department in the past”.
Some ministers answer only part of a question, “either because the effort of obtaining all the information is cumbersome or the minister simply intends to be evasive and give as little detail as possible”.
Sibanda added: “The issue has been raised numerous times by opposition parties. However, a more lasting and effective solution is needed, otherwise MPs draft and submit written questions in vain as the deliberate evasiveness makes a mockery of the oversight process.”
For now, “MPs are at the mercy of ministers and will have to trust the executive to engage with questions reasonably and in a bona fide manner that aligns with the constitutional obligation to be accountable to parliament”.