MPs expect to be “ready to roll” within 24 hours of the court making a decision on whether or not a parliamentary inquiry into the South African Broadcasting Corporation should go ahead or not.
Parliament’s ad hoc committee looking into the affairs of the cash-strapped broadcaster, which has endured many scandals over the past few years, met on Tuesday morning for a preparatory meeting, but the actual inquiry that was meant to start at 2pm could not go ahead, as SABC board chairperson, Obert Maguvhe, the only non-executive director left on the board, has launched a high court application to interdict the process from going forward.
Committee chairperson Vincent Smith said their first meeting on November 16th had felt “like a marathon” but said MPs were more than prepared to “push beyond mental and physical barriers” that stood in their way.
“It is not just about fulfilling our mandate and resolution adopted in the National Assembly … but rather about ensuring that in all our actions … we perform our duties without fear, without favour and without prejudice,” Smith told MPs.
“It’s about reaffirming parliament as the supreme oversight mechanism over the activities of the executive arm of government …”
The SABC is the state-owned broadcaster, with government as its sole shareholder through the department of communications.
Smith informed MPs that since their first meeting on November 16, the committee requested documents from the SABC, which was to reach parliament by no later than November 21.
When that deadline was not met, parliament issued a summons on November 23 demanding the documents reach the legislature by no later than the next day.
“As we speak the documents have not been delivered,” Smith explained.
Parliament’s chief legal adviser Zuraya Adhikarie informed MPs that the summons was also being challenged in Maghuve’s court application set down for Friday in the High Court in Cape Town.
“Indeed the summons is a very powerful right that the constitution gives parliament and this committee by extension. However, the very essence of what is being challenged is the validity of the summons,” said Adhikarie.
In terms of the law, refusing to obey a summons by parliament to produce a document could result in a “fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 12 months or to both the fine and the imprisonment”.
But Adhikarie said they would defer to the courts before deciding on what action to take.
“Yes, the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act does open that person up to criminal prosecution, but in terms of this pending court case, we would now ask the court to pronounce itself on of the validity of summons.”
She indicated legal counsel would argue that the summons was issued correctly, and any argument to the contrary was without merit.
Parliament’s legal team will also defend MPs on the committee against claims by Maguvhe that he was being publicly condemned by members of the National Assembly.
Smith told the committee that 39 witnesses were identified. So far, 24 of them had agreed to testify before the committee. They include former board members and SABC staff.
Four of the eight journalists who were fired and then later reinstated will testify on behalf of the so-called “SABC 8”.
Former public protector Thuli Madonsela, who found that controversial former chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng lied about his matric results, saying his appointment was irregular, will be abroad and unable to testify.
Madonsela’s findings were later backed up by the Supreme Court of Appeal. However, the SABC board moved Motsoeneng into another senior position – group executive for corporate affairs – a decision slammed by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and most opposition parties. Motsoeneng and Maghuve, however, still appear to have the support of Communications Minister Faith Muthambi.
Madonsela’s successor as public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, will also be unavailable due to “prior engagements” said Smith, but she had indicated that three of her employees could testify on condition that it be done “in camera”, a stance not supported by MPs.
Smith said while they would consider requests by individuals with “compelling reasons” to have their evidence heard in camera, institutions – who have an obligation to report to parliament – would not be given the same privilege.
Economic Freedom Fighters’ MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said Mkhwebane needed to make herself available. By not doing so, he charged, she was showing disrespect for the institution of parliament
“The new public protector must be told in unequivocal terms this is the institution she must report to. Parliament is her boss, finish and klaar,” Ndlozi said.
Ndlozi said while they did not quite trust parliament’s lawyers, he was willing to “attack this interdict” with them.
“I’ve beaten them a lot in court … I don’t want to be beaten on Friday.”