Thursday, 16 April 2015

Small Business Development Portfolio Committee Chair opposed to transparent oversight

Yesterday's portfolio committee on Small Business Development revealed that Chairperson Ruth Bhengu is more interested in protecting government agencies and hiding inconsistencies in the ANC's economic policy than conducting transparent and effective parliamentary oversight.

The Small Enterprise Finance Agency (SEFA) previously reported directly to Minister Ebrahim Patel’s Department of Economic Development, but as of 1 April 2015, SEFA now reports to Lindiwe Zulu as the Minister of Small Business Development. Therefore oversight of SEFA is the responsibility of the Small Business Development portfolio committee.

I like to take some of the credit for this move as I have made it a point of policy that all agencies with responsibility for small business must report to Minister Zulu. In one-on-one meetings with her since her appointment last May I have stressed the matter and have written several opinion pieces to this effect. In October I wrote to Jeff Radebe, Minister in the Presidency, requesting him to intervene in the turf wars between Ministers Patel and Zulu.

SEFA appeared before committee yesterday to present their strategic plan for 2015/16 - 2017/18. When the time to present came, the SEFA’s board chairperson requested they do not present then as their plan was aligned with the Department of Economic Development ‘s strategic objectives and goals and hence needs to be changed. The chairperson effectively said the current plan is not in line with Small Business Development vision and strategy.

This clearly shows that policies and positions within government's economics cluster are at odds, specifically between Patel’s Economic Development and Zulu’s Small Business Development ministries.

Ruth Bhengu, the chairperson of the Portfolio Committee, said that SEFA should not be “punished” for this institutional arrangement, and granted this request.

I objected to this ruling, saying that when I had called for the Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, to appear before the Committee and account for the appalling neglect of Industrial Parks in Gauteng townships (the parks are owned by SEFA), Bhengu replied in a letter by stating the following:
“I appreciate your initiative in raising this matter and think that it is a matter that requires the attention of the Committee. Small Enterprises Finance Agency (SEFA) would from the 1st of April 2015 fall under the Department of Small Business Development. My view on this matter is that we should rather use the report of the oversight visit to Gauteng to engage SEFA on this matter and Minister Lindiwe Zulu in order to reshape and redirect the focus of SEFA towards the improvement of Industrial Parks in Gauteng Townships and other areas”

The Committee ....will have SEFA appearing on the 15th of April to present its Strategic and Annual Performance Plans. That process would give the Committee a better opportunity to influence change."
By her actions yesterday Bhengu essentially protected SEFA and blocked any questions directed towards the chairperson of SEFA’s board.

Bhengu called my attempt to question SEFA over the Industrial Parks as “party politicking”, and said she would not allow engagement by one member of the committee on the oversight visit.

The Committee, along with Lindiwe Zulu, visited the Orlando West Industrial Park in early February but I was unable to attend, hence my visit there on Monday. Through my work in Soweto for the past 10 years I have long been aware of the dire state of this park and others in Gauteng. The situation has got worse over the years.

I pointed out to Bhengu that Business Day had reported that morning on Minister Zulu's admission that the parks needed urgent attention and this alone justified the committee's hearing the presentation and being afforded an opportunity to ask questions. Disappointingly I was a lone voice in the committee (apart from my deputy Henro Kruger). 

This is not how Parliamentary oversight should work. It is not the job of chairs to protect government officials from answering difficult questions, or shielding government from public exposure of its internal ideological and strategic conflicts. 

The reason Bhengu changed her tune from the position expressed in her letter is that in the morning, the Small Enterprise Development Agency presented to committee and explicitly admitted that its first ten years of existence had been "indefensible." One senior official said this was the first time he had appeared before a parliamentary committee while the CEO said it was rare for SEDA to have direct engagements with Minister Rob Davies while SEDA reported to the DTI. 

Had SEFA been scheduled to present in the morning there is no doubt they would have done so, and if Bhengu had taken the same line SEDA might have been spared. 

Fortunately, the committee secretary King Kunene handed out both SEFA's strategic plan and presentation as hard copies to committee members so we will be able to see the differences when they come and present their new plan to the committee before the budget debate on 20th May.

So my message to Ruth Bhengu is - they can run but they cannot hide.


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