Public Protector on participatory democracy, secrecy bill and her office’s powers. And the country in trouble.

By Osiame Molefe 13 September 2011

The SAPS building leases, her office’s roadshow and the protection of information bill were among the issues discussed by the Public Protector at the Cape Town Press Club. While her overriding message was that no one is above the law, she placed particular emphasis on how her office would only get busier if government did not change the way it deals with ordinary citizens. By OSIAME MOLEFE.

Thuli Madonsela said on Monday that she had various options available to her, should government departments and the executive not respond to her reports or fail to implement the remedial actions recommended. Among them is issuing subpoenas, which she said was a last resort.

“Anyone in terms of the Public Protector Act can be subpoenaed to come and explain to me why they have done whatever they have done or why they have failed to do [what they ought to have done],” Madonsela said.

Madonsela had given public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde until 12 September to report to Cabinet on her actions around the SAPS leases of the Middestad and Transnet buildings, and her failure to cooperate fully with the public protector’s investigation into the matter. She said her office was in talks with Mahlangu-Nkabinde and would know by Tuesday, 13 September whether the minister would cooperate.

Last Friday, Mahlangu-Nkabinde suggested that she was waiting for the Special Investigating Unit to complete its investigation into irregularities in the department of public works before responding. Even if this is the case, Madonsela says, organs of state (or their heads), which may be unhappy with her findings or recommendations, cannot just sit in a corner and ignore her reports.

She said it would be a flagrant disregard of the Constitution and the rule of law for Mahlangu-Nkabinde (or anyone else for that matter) not to respond. However she declined to say any more on the matter until she had heard from the Cabinet secretary.

On the recently finalised protection of information bill, Madonsela said her research team was studying the latest version and would respond fully at a later date. She expressed concern over the bill’s lack of a public interest defence, which she said would affect the functioning of her office indirectly if it relied on the media and whistleblowers to report issues of fraud, corruption and service delivery failures within organs of state.

Madonsela’s office has recently completed its nationwide roadshow. She said that if some of complaints laid by members of the public during the roadshow turn out to be true after they’ve been investigated, “then we are in trouble”. This was particularly in cases of public procurement where controls are poor, skills are lacking and corruption is blatant.

She said that it was clear that South Africa was at a crossroads. One path would mean involving ordinary citizens as shareholders in the decisions of government and the other would be the opposite, where the people are excluded and the government continues to treat citizens as customers to whom it must deliver services. The first path, that of a true participatory democracy, is what people are yearning for, according to Madonsela.

She did not quantify the number or cost of the new investigations she had taken on during the roadshow, but said that her office had applied to the National Treasury for additional funding. She also said that though there was nothing that precluded her office from sourcing funding elsewhere, she was wary about how outside funding would affect independence both in appearance and fact. DM


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