Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
David Maynier. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

A ROW is again brewing in Parliament over an intention to hold a committee briefing on defence acquisitions behind closed doors.

The constitution says that Parliament and its committees should meet in public unless it is reasonable in a democratic society to have a closed meeting.

A few years ago, a decision to close a meeting of the communications committee over the chaos in the South African Broadcasting Corporation brought relations between Parliament and the media to one of its lowest points. Reporters held a sit-in protest outside the committee room.

Only the joint standing committee on intelligence holds its meetings in secret as a matter of course, and all MPs serving on it take an oath of confidentiality.

In the past, the intention to close a meeting to the public and the press was first debated in an open committee. This gave opposition MPs the opportunity to object in public to any decision to close a meeting, even if in the end they were outvoted by the African National Congress majority.

Now it appears the procedure had changed, and National Assembly speaker Max Sisulu is asked to approve the holding of a closed meeting.

A note on Parliament’s committee meeting schedule states that a letter has been sent to Mr Sisulu asking for a closed meeting. It is not clear what is on the agenda, but defence acquisitions range from military hardware to a luxury transcontinental jet for President Jacob Zuma.

Democratic Alliance defence spokesman David Maynier said he would write to the chairman of the defence committee, Stanley Motimele, to ask for an explanation.

He said the meeting was scheduled for July 23 at defence headquarters in Pretoria, adding: "The purpose of the meeting, according to the programme, is to provide ‘a comprehensive briefing on the current defence acquisition plan and procedure; as well as defence material required for the (South African National Defence Force) to perform its duties and missions’.

"However, the programme clearly indicates that the meeting will be a ‘closed meeting’ because, according to the programme, ‘given the expected sensitive nature of information that will be presented to the committee (and which is linked to defence and national security), approval to hold this meeting in camera will be sought from the speaker of the National Assembly’."

Responding to queries, Mr Motimele said it was up the committee to decide whether it met in closed session. This effectively means that if the ANC wanted to meet behind closed doors, its majority would ensure that it could.

He said the request for a closed meeting was "an expression of the members of the committee but that does not mean that the meeting will be closed".

Mr Maynier said the fact the committee would be briefed on defence acquisition was a positive development because this had not happened in the past. It was common for defence ministers and officials to refuse to disclose information on acquisitions, he said.