Cape Town – Defence Minister Thandi Modise was back in Parliament for two days in a row this week.
Her attendance to the meeting of the National Assembly committee on defence was unlike the previous day when Modise participated in a debate on the oversight reports from KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng following the outbreak of unrest there.
On this day, she sat on the other side of the table as a member of the executive to lead department staff to brief and answer questions from the lawmakers.
Although not new to the role as she once served as a premier in the North West, on that day she faced the same people who accounted to her while she was the Speaker of the National Assembly a few weeks ago.
This did not go unnoticed by committee chairperson Cyril Xaba when he let it known upon asking Modise to make closing remarks before the meeting adjourned.
“It is interesting, Minister, how we swapped the roles. I was accounting to you and now you are accounting to us,” said Xaba brimming with smiles all over his face and laughing.
“That is true,” was Modise’s response.
At the start of the meeting, Xaba asked her to make what is known as a political overview before a presentation is made by officials.
She had the opportunity to spell out what in her view were the department’s challenges and her plan to turn the tide.
Initially, Modise did not share her thoughts on the controversial R215 million procurement of Heberon drug by the department at the start of the Covid-19 last year.
Instead, Modise asked the Secretary of Defence Sonto Kudjoe to lead the discussion.
“I don’t want to pretend that I am fully conversant on the matter. I am just coming onto it,” she said.
“What I know is what I read somewhere. It is safe to hand over to the Defence Secretary to lead the discussion,” the minister said.
Although initially she gave an impression of being a reluctant participant, the meeting ended with a sense of her thoughts in the running of the department and her not expecting any favours from the lawmakers.
When Kudjoe said the ministerial task team had undertaken to report in three weeks time on its investigation into Heberon procurement, Modise committed to appear in front of the committee within three weeks to give the report.
When the MPs expressed frustration on the irregular procurement and that the matter dragged on for long, Modise did not mince her words when she said the only time the defence department did not follow normal procurement was in strategic issues.
She went on to say Sahpra should not be encountering any difficulties accessing the storage facility of the drugs.
“If we do, I will know we have an extra-military government running this country. (Access to) those facilities must be granted.”
Modise also stated that whether Heberon was good or not, the procurement processes must be followed.
“I can’t wake up tomorrow and say I want a helicopter and it is procured. It can’t be done,” the minister said.
She vowed heads would roll on the matter.
“We are not going to excuse this thing because we will set a bad precedent so, chairperson, you can rest assured that heads will roll on this matter,” Modise said.
She later told MPs that under her leadership the department would follow procurement processes.
“Any other behaviour, outside that, will be dealt with so that we begin to get where we should be. If we allow any deviation, then we are in trouble.”
Modise also said any of them making an undertaking at the committee and in the House would have to carry that out.
In a rather unusual move, the minister apologised for the hiccup when the officials started with their presentation earlier to the dislike of the lawmakers.
“Having sat on the chair you sit on I kicked out a few ministers of defence in my time for coming in the way I had come to you today,” she said.
She put her head on the block saying there would be timeous submission of reports to the committee to enable MPs to read and prepare to ask them questions.
“Kick me any time out of your meetings if the information has not been with you seven days before the committee appearance,” Modise said.
She also told MPs that the committee has every right to put whatever question to them.
“I am hoping that we will be better prepared next time and we will be better responsive to the questions put to us.
“I can’t take it any further than that,” Modise said.
As a gesture to Modise’s commitments, Xaba was more than happy to say they were a good team.
“We think in the end we will enhance the performance in the department and improve accountability to the taxpayer as it were,” he said.
With Modise having set what appears to be the right tone, could it be that there is a new broom to sweep clean in the department? Modise would better stick to her commitments and will be judged as such on the undertakings she made.
Can she walk the talk or rather will she be up to the task?
* Mayibongwe Maqhina is a political correspondent at Independent Media.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.