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ANALYSIS: Zuma appoints a new Public Protector; will this one have teeth?

President Jacob Zuma has appointed Thulisile Madonsela as the new Public Protector. After the last guy, we're quite excited.

The office of the Public Protector has been so weak and so useless for so long that it’s quite weird to think that, constitutionally speaking, it has considerable power. The right and resources to conduct investigations, for instance.

But with Lawrence Mushwana in charge, it’s done virtually nothing. He simply could not get away from the fact that he used to be an ANC member of Parliament, and that seemed to colour everything he did. We cannot remember the last time he ruled that an opposition party’s complaint was valid, and his relationship with the Democratic Alliance in particular was as fraught as that between Tom and Jerry.

All of this is now likely to change.

President Jacob Zuma has officially appointed Advocate Thulisile Madonsela to take over. And – sit down if you’re easily shocked – all the parties in Parliament are pleased. Zuma’s appointment is a rubber stamp of the National Assembly’s decision, but it’s also one of the biggest indications yet that in some cases, he really does want to strengthen the institutions of democracy.

Madonesela has been around for ages, one of those advocates known for having serious brains. She was what was called at the time a “technical expert” who helped the Constitutional Assembly draft the Constitution. We presume she still remembers most of it. She’s also been at the Law Commission for some time, and is now ready for a more public position. On the law front, her credentials are simply unquestionable.

What may be more taxing for her however, is the inherently political nature of the Public Protector’s office. One of Mushwana’s worst nightmares was when he had to adjudicate Zuma’s claim that the National Prosecuting Authority had violated his rights. In the end he came down on Zuma’s side, which could explain Zuma’s praise of him for his “excellent service”. Madonsela’s inbox will be overflowing with complaints, many of them from the DA, that will all involve high-ranking government (and ANC officials).

It might help that she’s not a political person. As far as we know, she doesn’t belong to a political party, and hasn’t made any public political pronouncements. This will give her a real advantage, and that she will feel more able to able to concentrated on protecting the public, rather than any reputations.

However, Mushwana’s legacy does live on. He suspended the office’s chief executive, Thema Mthethwa, just a couple of days ago (doesn’t that remind you of Mbeki suspending Pikoli just before Polokwane), and as we know, those kind of employment cases can run and run and run. How quickly Madonsela manages to sort that out may not be a fair measure of her abilities, but as her first test it will still be closely watched.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is an Eye Witness News reporter.)


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