Public watchdog on a party leash

The resignation of Gavin Woods as chairman of Parliament's SCOPA marked a sad day for government accountability.

The resignation of Gavin Woods as chairman of Parliament's Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) marked a sad day for government accountability in South Africa. During his first year in office he nurtured the emerging but, as events showed, vulnerable tradition, in which Scopa's multiparty membership scrutinised the expenditure of public money in the interests of taxpayers without fear or favour. But then the governing African National Congress, angered by Scopa's plan to investigate the multibillion Rand arms deal, asserted its control over the committee and inflicted a fatal blow on that tradition. ANC members, who constituted a majority on Scopa, were whipped into line and transformed - to use ANC phraseology - from inquisitors on behalf of taxpayers to party functionaries obedient to narrower interests.

The first casualty was Andrew Feinstein, the independent-minded ANC leader on Scopa. The second was Woods who, though a member of the Inkatha Freedom Party, established a functional partnership with Feinstein and Feinstein's party political peers in Scopa. Woods tried to resurrect the fledgling non-partisan tradition after Feinstein's resignation but was thwarted by Scopa's reoriented ANC members, marshalled by ANC super loyalist Vincent Smith.

After Woods resigned Smith was installed as temporary chairman of Scopa and pledged that the ANC would honour the tradition of appointing a non-ANC parliamentarian to the position. But the fear remained that he would relinquish it only to a docile nominee from the ANC's newfound ally, the New National Party. As the Democratic Alliance's Raenette Taljaard put it before she herself resigned: "Only opposition parties willing to sign onto the ANC's vision need apply". Smith gave a hint of Scopa's future modus operandi under ANC control when he responded to Woods' pleas for the de-politicisation of Scopa: "If it means discarding ANC policy, we say that will not happen".

Woods' departure marked more than the demise of Scopa as a committee willing to exercise independent oversight of government spending. At the same time Woods released his critique of the Joint Investigating Committee's report into the arms deal and raised serious doubts about its intellectual vigour and independence. While the committee, appointed by President Thabo Mbeki and made up of the Auditor General, Public Protector and National Director of Public Prosecutions, promised to investigate the "full financial and fiscal implications" of the "strategic defence package", its report failed to fulfil the pledge. It did not answer the vital question of whether the government would meet the future cost of the arms deal, which has already more than doubled from about R30bn to over R60bn, by curtailed social spending, by higher taxes or by foreign loans. And it did not examine the government's underlying assumption that the cost of the arms deal would be more than met by investments from contracting weapons manufacturers in industrial participation projects. If that assumption were self-evidently true, poorer countries would, to quote Woods, "spend huge portions of their budgets on arms in anticipation of receiving four times the value in return".

Woods reached a compelling and justifiable conclusion: the ANC majority in Scopa had "abdicated its investigative responsibility" by uncritically and gratefully accepting the report and by reneging on its commitment, detailed in its 14th report to Parliament in November 2000, to carry out its own parallel investigation.

The government's role in ending Scopa's brief life as an institution above party political control was predictable in light of the inclination of the ANC to shield its leaders from their failures of judgement instead of holding them to account. Soon after it came to power the ANC defended the then health minister, Nkozasana Dlamini-Zuma, when she mismanaged nearly R14m allocated to the anti-Aids education programme. Later the ANC took the same course over Penuell Maduna who, as mineral and energy affairs minister, falsely accused the then Auditor-General of covering up the theft of R170m from the Strategic Oil Fund. The Public Protector found that Maduna allowed an investigation to proceed, at great expense to the taxpayer, even after he became aware that his accusation was without foundation. As former University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Mamphela Ramphele aptly commented in an incisive analysis of ANC political culture: "The common good has suffered as a result".