Carol Paton Writer at Large

Parliament’s constitutional review committee, which is determining whether and how to amend the constitution to allow expropriation of land without compensation, plans to adopt its final report on November 15, even though the committee itself has not begun deliberations.

The committee spent two hours on Thursday morning in a chaotic discussion of minutes of previous meetings, with co-chair Stanford Maila battling to keep control of the meeting and make progress as MPs vehemently disagreed with each other.

For the committee to have its report processed through the National Assembly by the time parliament rises on December 7, it must adopt a committee report by mid-November.

The ANC, which has a majority in the committee and is bolstered by the support of the EFF, has already said that it wants to amend the constitution. Such an amendment would make it explicit in the constitution that land can be expropriated without compensation. The committee is to deliberate for three days next week on the submissions it has received, after which a vote is likely.

Thursday’s inter-party acrimony centred on what appears to be a minor dispute in previous minutes, but one which could open the way for a legal challenge of the entire process. At issue is a report on written submissions by the public, which were called for by parliament in an advertisement earlier this year.

It is believed that more than 700,000 submissions were made.  While the public hearings on the so-called property clause were overwhelmingly in favour for amending the constitution, many of the written submissions were not. However, a private company that was contracted by parliament to compile and summarise the submissions, and gave a presentation in September, was sent packing by MPs who said that it had not done the job it was asked to do.

While opposition MPs say that this means the committee rejected the report on written submissions, the ANC and EFF say that it was only the presentation of the report that was rejected, not the report itself.

Minutes that reflected that the report was rejected were amended by the committee on Thursday to read that it was the presentation that was rejected. This happened after the minutes had been adopted.

Exasperated MPs

Maila said that this was legitimate as it was done with the agreement of members. He said he had been in control of the meeting and that it had taken two hours to discuss the previous minutes because land was a contentious issue and everybody had to be allowed to have their say.

But exasperated MPs had exhorted him throughout the meeting to establish order and he was continually corrected and had to backtrack on procedural matters. Only the EFF appeared  satisfied with the chair, encouraging him not to be distracted by other opposition parties that were “playing with his mind”.

Opposition members said the dispute over whether written submissions had been adequately considered by parliament laid the process open to legal challenge. 

“The problem is this: an advert went out calling for written submissions. What we received is a report that was so unacceptable, the company that compiled it was sent away. It was then decided that parliament would compile a report. That was not done,’’ said the Freedom Front Plus’s Corné Mulder:

However, Maila said that only the presentation of the company that had summarised the written submissions had been rejected, and not the report itself. Thus, the report still stood and MPs were able to read the report, as well as all the written submissions made, which they could do by visiting the room in which they were housed at parliament.

Steve Swart of the ACDP said: “At the heart of the matter is that parliament has to apply its mind to the submissions. Parliament has to do that, not individual MPs reading the submissions on their own.”