If you’re concerned about our new Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, you’re not alone.
Huffington Post South Africa’s series of exclusives about the turmoil at her office have consistently been our top read stories, even during the slow festive season period.
With good reason. The signals emanating from the Public Protector Office since Mkhwebane first took over from highly respected Thuli Madonsela have been worrying.
I was cautious, remembering how the media had treated Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng when he was chosen to lead the Constitutional Court.
When she first took office on October 17 I was determined as a journalist and editor not to pre-judge her or fall into the hysteria surrounding her time working at the State Security Agency (SSA)
I was cautious, remembering how the media had treated Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng when he was chosen to lead the Constitutional Court in 2011. There were rightly concerns around his previous judgements around rape and gender based violence.
But there was also a panicked expectation that he would turn out to be nothing more than a puppet placed in the role by President Jacob Zuma. South Africa’s courts have long been a thorn in the side of the corrupt in this country. But Mogoeng surprised the naysayers. He has been firmly independent as a chief justice, despite fears to the contrary.
Madonsela’s term in office set the bar incredibly high
Mkhwebane’s predecessor too, the now mighty Thuli Madonsela, faced criticism, notably from some in the opposition Democratic Alliance. Her independence from the ANC was also questioned. She went to prove them all wrong in the most resounding way possible.
In fact Madonsela’s term in office set the bar incredibly high, after a time of yes men in the role before her.
Her firm commitment to investigating even the highest power in the land, Zuma himself, saw death threats levelled at her and bullying tactics by Zuma’s cronies. She was eventually vindicated in, you guessed it, the courts.
So when Mkhwebane looked like she was going to get the job there was intense scrutiny.
Mkhwebane was independently-minded and rather critical of Zuma himself at times
The country was in the grip of state capture allegations and the Public Protector’s Office was at the centre of it all, with an explosive report put together by Madonsela on the subject. We were all still reeling from the axing of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, seemingly to allow further looting of state resources. The current finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, has been under constant threat of arrest as he tries to protect the integrity of our public finances.
Against this backdrop it was easy to see Mkhwebane as another Zuma appointment designed to protect his interests.
But a Mail & Guardian article looking at her private tweets before her time in the intelligence services showed that Mkhwebane was independently-minded and rather critical of Zuma himself at times.
When her predecessor released the now famous report Secure in Comfort in 2014, looking at the misuse of public money at Zuma’s private residence of Nkandla, Mkhwebane retweeted a comment that said: “Under the National Party we had Apartheid but under the ANC we experience Coruptheid”. She also helped spread a graphic that showed how the R246-million spent on Nkandla could have been better applied, such as by building about 2 900 low-cost homes.
She later followed that with a link to a news article on former president Kgalema Motlanthe’s call on government to implement Madonsela’s recommendations, the article said.
When she took office on October 17 the news was almost immediately worrying
All this gave me hope: perhaps we had another Mogoeng on our hands: someone the president would hope would serve his interests but in the end would remain firmly independent.
But when she took office on October 17 the news was almost immediately worrying. There were the little things: she didn’t bother listening to Madonsela at their handover, fiddling with her phone throughout the exchange according to reports. She changed the channel on the televisions in the office from ENCA to ANN7 — a news channel owned by the Gupta family, close friends of Zuma accused of state capture.
She didn’t try to engage with many of her new staff, and seemed to actively alienate them.
Then there were the big things: she failed to oppose Zuma and others’ interdict of her own office’s state capture report.
Something of an obsession with undoing Madonsela’s legacy started to emerge.
Worse still shortly after Madonsela’s explosive State of Capture report was released and the then Eskom CEO Brian Molefe — who was heavily fingered in it — resigned, Mkhwebane said that his departure was a great loss for the public sector. “I mean honestly it’s a loss for the country.”
It was rapidly downhill from there when she laid a criminal complaint against Madonsela over the release of a recording with Zuma.
Something of an obsession with undoing Madonsela’s legacy started to emerge when City Press reported that Mkhwebane threatened to withdraw South Africa’s hosting of an African ombuds’ conference if her predecessor was invited.
We revealed in a series of stories how senior staff associated with Madonsela were being forced out of the office, flouting labour regulations to do so.
And then there is her relationship with the media.
At this point she has strained even the most generous interpretation of her actions.
The Public Protector’s media team have always been among the most responsive and professional in the business. They usually get back to us journalists immediately and with great courtesy. When Mkhwebane took over this suddenly changed. As we reported on the departures at her office we were often unable to get comment, as questions simply went unanswered. Given that her communication team was previously very responsive we can only imagine that she had vetoed responding to the media.
For an office that is meant to hold others to account on the public’s behalf, this is very concerning.
I had been determined to give Mkhwebane the benefit of the doubt. But at this point she has strained even the most generous interpretation of her actions.
We should all be very concerned about Mkhwebane’s term in office.