“Happiness?” ANC MP Vincent Smith often asks while he chairs a meeting, glancing over at the members of the committee, eliciting approving nods from the governing party and opposition alike.
This veteran MP, who became a member of Parliament in 1999, recently chaired the Ad Hoc Committee on the SABC Board, the Ad Hoc Committee on Party Funding and is the chairperson of the Standing Committee on the Auditor General. He is also the co-chairperson of the Joint Constitutional Review Committee, along with Lewis Nzimande.
The committee was tasked with investigating whether Section 25 the Constitution should be amended to allow expropriation without compensation after the National Assembly passed a motion to that effect in February.
The gravity of the task is not lost on Smith.
The committee asked the public to make submissions either in writing or electronically, and they arrived in a deluge of printouts and pixels.
A day before the deadline – last Friday – more than 700 000 submissions reached Parliament.
Smith told News24 after the committee’s meeting on Thursday that he hasn’t seen so many submissions in any of the other committees he has chaired.
“So, in terms of public participation, it is incontestable, it is unprecedented,” he said of the submissions.
“In terms of the weight of the importance: the fact that we got over 500 000 [submissions] shows that South Africans are taking it seriously, that it is a matter that is close to their hearts. It is a sensitive matter, it must be dealt with accordingly.”
Public hearings into the land question
In the coming weeks, until the end of July, the committee will split into two and visit every province for public hearings.
“I think that it is necessary that we don’t unnecessarily create panic ourselves as MPs. That is why I’m glad that members of Parliament have today (Thursday) agreed that we will facilitate as opposed to agitate in the meetings.”
“All people that participate must be assured that they will be safe, that they will be allowed to speak, regardless of their views.”
Smith describes this as an “immense” responsibility, with three prongs.
“One, in the sense that we want to make sure, certainly I want to make sure, that the process is unchallengeable in law.
“Secondly, that members of Parliament work as a team and not as individual political parties.
“And thirdly, that I think South Africans of all walks of life, whether they’re land owners, workers, whether they’re bankers, whether they are normal South Africans, do not feel alienated and that imminent doom is about to befall them.”
“We must always make sure that the process must ensure that security of tenure, that agricultural productivity, that all those things are not jeopardised by our process. So, we shouldn’t go about agitating for wrong reasons.”
Smith’s personal mission is to ensure that the process is as “honest and drama-free as possible”, “so that we capture the real views of real South Africans – both those that have expectations and those that have anxieties”.
His leading of the Ad Hoc Committee on the SABC Board, which concluded its work early last year, and the Ad Hoc Committee on Party Funding, which concluded its work in March, won him plaudits from political friend and foe alike. Two words guide his approach to ensure a successful committee: “simplicity” and “inclusivity”.
“As you see in the committee today, everybody must be able to speak. It’s not the chair’s meeting, it is our meeting. And you also heard me say that, when we get into the field, I will not be chairing the meeting. Me and the team will chair, so all of us have equal responsibility in ensuring the success of it.”
“I think that has worked for me up until now. We desist from working as silos, but we work as a team, for the common goal of producing whatever Parliament has mandated us to produce. I’m sure that we’ll be able to do it this time because, as you’ve heard, members have made that commitment of their own accord.”
No walk in the park
The issues that Smith has been asked to traverse – the mess the SABC was in, the sensitive topic of political party funding, and now the controversial issue of expropriation without compensation – are political minefields. He will admit that it is not always a walk in the park.
“It is difficult. Sometimes you want to throw in the towel. But I’ve been taught that, if you’ve been given an exercise, do it to the best of your ability and let those who do the judging, do the judging.”
“But I try and do my best at all times, as honestly as possible and as simply as possible.”