PROFILE: Mkhuleko Hlengwa’s plan to tackle the rot
The new chair of parliament’s watchdog committee is young and driven – with enough experience to hold the executive to account
In 2012 the IFP’s long-standing and now outgoing leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, took a gamble on then 24-year-old Mkhuleko Hlengwa.
Hlengwa was named an MP, which by his own account "raised eyebrows". Nine years later, the leader of the IFP Youth Brigade and the party’s national spokesperson can’t quite say why his mentor, Buthelezi, had such faith in him, but he hopes the gamble has paid off.
The party has taken yet another chance on one of its most prominent MPs by giving him the chair of the standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) — parliament’s watchdog.
Scopa is the only committee not chaired by the ANC.
Hlengwa says Scopa is positioned at the centre of parliamentary accountability and oversight. It is strategically positioned to "ask the critical question: what killed the patient? And, like no other, resurrect the dead," he says.
Hlengwa will exercise this accountability by identifying what went wrong and then fixing it.
"I will not allow a situation where parliament and Scopa are undermined, nor will I allow a situation where Scopa undermines others. We will endeavour to interact with the highest level of parliamentary discipline, but what we will undermine is corruption, maladministration, fraud and the total disregard for the rule of law. We will develop an allergy towards these ills. Because that’s what our people expect of us," Hlengwa says.
After the state capture years — when the legislature became a toothless arm of a state that blurred the separation of powers between it and the executive — this approach is welcome.
Hlengwa takes over from long-standing chair Themba Godi, whose African People’s Convention failed to get enough votes to maintain its seat. The opposite was true for the IFP, which increased its seats from 10 to 14 in the National Assembly.
Hlengwa, the father of a seven-year-old son, went to school in Port Shepstone and studied at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is a modern, streetwise 32-year-old who also has strong traditional Zulu roots which originate from being born into the families of traditional leaders. He takes 15 minutes of an hour-long interview to pay tribute to the IFP, Buthelezi and his own family, which has deep roots in the party.
Hlengwa is under no illusion: chairing Scopa is no small task. He was a member of the committee during the Zuma administration, and says it functioned to the best of its ability within the confines of a difficult political and "toxic" environment.
Scopa became part of the groundswell against the rot in the state and was able to shake off political pressure and find its independence.
The same can’t be said for other parts of the legislature, which effectively became lapdogs to the executive while former president Jacob Zuma was the head of state.
Hlengwa believes it is necessary to reflect on "the complicity" of former National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete, who "aided and abetted the culture of non-accountability". Mbete was seen as Zuma’s protector-in-chief. Hlengwa sees new speaker Thandi Modise as a breath of fresh air.
And all he asks from President Cyril Ramaphosa is that his ministers and directors-general of government departments do the right thing by giving account, answering questions and appearing before Scopa in good faith.
And if the executive fails to heed that call, Hlengwa will be there to get parliament’s watchdog biting.