Zombie MPs

What on earth has happened to ANC MPs? Two decades ago, the party’s legislators helped forge SA’s new Constitution and overhauled a vast swathe of apartheid-era legislation.

Soon after these triumphs, however, many of the governing party’s MPs moved into a dormant or even vegetative state. Party whips and the caucus code of conduct damped any enthusiasm they might have felt for parliamentary oversight.

Any committee chairman showing abnormal signs of intellectual activity was quickly appointed a deputy minister. The quality of ANC MPs steadily declined as the legislature became a retirement home for divisive provincial politicians.

Even the arrival of the noisy EFF in 2014 did not rouse most ANC members from their slumbers. But almost all parliamentary zombies have now been jolted into life by the shock of Cyril Ramaphosa’s elevation to the presidency.

Every day now, a torrent of statements pours out of the parliamentary media office. Earlier this week, the portfolio committees on police and on justice and correctional services castigated ministers and former ministers for “inadequate responses” to questions about the prosecution of alleged state-capture malefactors.

The portfolio committee on social development also hauled South African Social Security Agency directors over the coals for inadequate audit processes. The portfolio committee on public enterprises said it was “not happy or impressed” by how former Eskom board chairman Ben Ngubane had responded to its questions.

There are four possible explanations for the extraordinary revitalisation of once lethargic committee members and chairmen.

First, we may have arrived at a genuine watershed moment with regard to the moral character of SA’s political elites. MPs may have been shocked by how close the country came to full-scale state capture. Recognising how little they did to avert such a disastrous situation, ANC MPs are now driven by a redoubled personal determination to serve the people and by a deeper than ever moral rectitude.

Second, the ANC still lies in a post-conference interregnum. Since Ramaphosa has yet to secure an electoral mandate, party activists are now free to “follow their conscience”, although sceptics may feel that many MPs may not know what this entity is or where to find it.

Third, the reanimation of zombie MPs may have been initiated by paranormal clairvoyance about their presence on or absence from future candidate lists. After the Polokwane conference in 2007, when Jacob Zuma became ANC president, even doddery ANC parliamentarians staggered to their feet to lambast Thabo Mbeki’s loyalist ministers — often in the hope of future rewards from Zuma. Today, a Ramaphosa-controlled list process for the 2019 elections is again concentrating MPs’ minds.

Finally, ANC MPs may have been recruited to perform walk-on roles in the most ambitious theatrical performances yet conceived in post-apartheid SA. Given that state capture and parastatal looting were instigated and realised by multitudes of ANC politicians and their allies, these numerous malfeasants simply cannot all be punished without putting much of the party behind bars.

For this reason, a spectacular drama of parliamentary interrogation, castigation and humiliation is required to avert the need for a comprehensive (and also bourgeois-liberal) programme of prosecution and punishment.

Such a drama will smooth the way for a more thorough and legalistic covering of the tracks, one that can be accomplished only by a presidential commission of selective inquiry into state capture.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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