Yesterday was my first taste of portfolio committees in Parliament. In the morning there was a joint sitting of the Economic Development Committee and the Small Business Development Committee (which Henro Kruger and I belong to) and in the afternoon we sat with the Trade & Industry Committee. Committees comprise 11 members, 6 from the ANC, 2 from the DA and 3 from other parties. Last Wednesday we elected the Chairpersons of the committees, in our case senior ANC member Ruth Bhengu although technically DA members abstained in line with the party whip. This week all the committees are sitting to listen to their respective ministers present their plans and budgets for the remainder of the financial year and to take questions from Members. Minister Patel was not at all pleased with the question I posed to him and gave me a ticking off like I was a naughty new boy at school who didn't know his place.
Henro and I joined our counterparts in Economic Development Kobus Marais and Patrick Atkinson, and together with the other MPs we sat on one side of the committee room while the department officials sat on the other. There was also a smattering of media and representatives from small business and the Competition Commission and other interested bodies.
Patel's department was created by Jacob Zuma in 2009 and suggestions at the time were that it was a sop to the unions. Patel's career before being appointed to Cabinet was as a union and political activist, rising to top positions in the Clothing and Textile Union and sitting on the Cosatu central executive committee. More recently he had been the main protagonist of the concept of decent work, which was a major plank in the New Growth Path, the main policy document to emerge from his Economic Development Department during his first term in office.
As Patel himself admitted yesterday, Economic Development is relative small compared to other departments, with an annual budget a shade below R700 million. Its main functions are to identify priorities for job creation, inclusive growth and industrialisation; support alignment of the state around implementation; oversee and provide strategic direction to development finance institutions (like the Industrial Development Corporation), and to provide strategic direction on competition policy and trade administration matters.
Kobus and Patrick were among the first to ask the Minister questions, then I caught the chair's eye.
The question I put to Patel was prefaced by the observation that his departmental objectives were very broad and challenging, and that many of them concerned processes internal to his department rather than attaining measurable improvements in the economy like job creation, economic growth and reducing youth unemployment. I then asked him how the various ministries in the economics cluster, including Treasury, DTI, Labour and his department, could attribute outcomes to specific policy measures and secondly how could they overcome the internal conflicts when it came to the goals of the NDP which in some cases were in conflict with the New Growth Path. These conflicts emanate from the fact that significant segments of the ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance are violently opposed to the NDP and he himself was a former trade unionist associated with opposition to the NDP.
One of the other committee members objected to my line of questioning and the Committee chairperson also had a dig, saying that Mr Patel was a member of Cabinet and appeared before the Committee in this role, representing a unified government policy on the NDP.
When it came to Patel answering my question he chided me for playing politics, saying the election was over and the ANC had an overwhelming mandate to implement the NDP. Afterwards I reiterated my point which was that the NDP is hardly a done deal and that I was merely pointing out some of the ideological fissures that exist within the Alliance with regard to the NDP. He ticked me off again and said I should learn how to behave and not play politics.
Ebrahim Patel is a smooth operator and clearly very intelligent, and when he speaks one is lulled into a false sense that there could be no other way of looking at things. His school-master like demeanor is intended to put you in your place and make you look like a dunce and a spoilsport, which he achieves with skillful use of statistics as when he and Tim Harris appeared in a pre-election debate on etv. Getting the better of him requires an adroitness as well as a refusal to give in, and a careful unpicking of the holes in his argument. I am sure we will have another opportunity to joust in public again soon.
The afternoon committee went off in a rather more friendly manner (earlier I promised our committee assistant I'd be nicer to Minister Davis than I was to Patel). Rob Davies and his DG Lionel October presented a cogent strategy and budget outline, but were unprepared for sitting alongside members of the Small Business Development Committee so there wasn't much in their presentation on small business - perhaps a reflection of its lowly status historically in this department?
So when Committee Chair Joan Fubbs welcomed us to the meeting Davies was forced to give an impromptu summary of the DTI's policies on small business, which I must say he did well. His DG Lionel October was better prepared, and outlined the bits of the DTI to be transferred to SBD - Seda, the Seda Technology Programme and policies related to cooperatives, as well as incubators.
This prompted a question from me, asked in a respectful manner I hope, as to the DTI's long term policy on incubators. The Incubator Support Programme is a major plank in the department's policy on small business, and Davies responded that within five years they intended to have 90 incubators up and running. They are established on a 50/50 basis with private sector players such as Anglo Zimele and Sasol, and I happen to know MEDO have been awarded a contract to set up two - one in Gauteng, one in Cape Town. I have a meeting with them tomorrow to learn how they work.
Geordin Hill-Lewis and Dean McPherson, the shadow DTI Minister and Deputy, were in attendance and both asked some well though-out questions. Floyd Shivambu from the EFF tackled Davies on the issue of beneficiation of platinum group metals and why the DTI would not simply set up a mine of its own if it wanted to get metals at a discount to the market price. Davies responded that government policy was not to nationalise mines but to work with the industry, through legislation and regulations, to attain its objectives. The much-contested Minerals and Petroleum Development Amendment Bill provides for certain minerals to be declared strategic allowing government to buy quantities at a price to be determined other than market price. The DA regards this as undue interference and James Lorimer, the Shadow Minister, is fighting tooth and nail to have this and other provisions in the bill removed.