It has been reported in the media “Zwane defies JZ over probe” (The Star September 29), that the Mineral Resources Minister, Mosebenzi Zwane, has defied President Zuma.
This was after he reiterated that he had issued his statement on appointment of a judicial inquiry into certain commercial banks for closing the accounts of the Gupta companies in his capacity as member of the cabinet.
This statement by Zwane also contradicted the cabinet decision and report that it, as the highest executive authority in the land, had never instructed him to issue the statement.
Minister Zwane said this in replying to a written parliamentary question from the DA MP David Maynier. In this regard he said he stood by his earlier statement concerning the proposed judicial inquiry.
However, of great significance, President Zuma has as a result of Zwane’s controversial statement, indicated that he had reprimanded him for the statement, and explained that the minister had made such statement in his personal capacity.
This followed a probe into the conduct of the commercial banks by the inter-ministerial committee relating to the circumstances giving rise to the closing of the Guptas’ commercial bank accounts.
Zuma also indicated during question time about a month ago in the National Assembly that he was addressing the issue with minister Zwane.
Section 92(2) states that “members of the cabinet are accountable collectively and individually to Parliament for the exercise of their powers and performance of their functions”.
It is clear that collective and individual responsibility has thereby been enacted expressly into our constitution. In the Westminster system such responsibility or accountability operates by virtue of its status as conventions of the constitution.
To understand how they operate it is necessary to explain how they function in a system of responsible government as provided by our constitution, which in this regard follows the Westminster paradigm.
In this regard the most renowned definition of collective cabinet responsibility is that of Lord Salisbury, a British prime minister, who declared: “For all that passes in a cabinet every member of it who does not resign is absolutely and irretrievably responsible and has no right afterwards to say that he agreed in one case to compromise, while in another he was persuaded by his colleagues…
“It is only on the principle that absolute responsibility of Ministers of Parliament can be upheld and one of the essential principles of responsibility established.”
The manifest result of this practice of collective responsibility is that it requires that on any major policy question, ministers of state should be of one mind and voice.
However, in our constitutional history the doctrine of collective responsibility has been observed within elastic limits.
It operates effectively when there is internal ideological cohesion in the cabinet. When there is not, or when there is a coalition government, or a government of national unity, the doctrine must be relaxed.
In 1932 in the UK, the national coalition government departed from the principle of collective responsibility and permitted Liberal Party members of the cabinet to disagree with their colleagues’ fiscal policy.
The experiment was a failure and the dissenting members resigned. In general, collective cabinet responsibility is a sound principle of effective executive government.
It is clear that Zwane’s actions and statements are in conflict with the letter and spirit of collective cabinet responsibility. Zwane is, in metaphorical language, acting like a loose cannon, and in so doing, brings the esteem and cohesion of the Zuma cabinet into disrepute.
To add insult to injury, Zuma does not appear to have called him effectively into line. This creates the impression of a weak presidency, which appears to be at sixes and sevens in relation to important policy issues, which in no uncertain terms impacts negatively on the economy and investor confidence in the country.
Effective cabinet government requires that Zuma is obliged to call Zwane to submit himself to the authority of the cabinet. His failure to do so should result in his summary dismissal.
* George Devenish is an emeritus professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who helped draft the 1993 interim constitution.