South Africa

Strike Thuli Madonsela, strike a rock – who could someday be Madam President

By Ranjeni Munusamy 14 August 2012

The attendance at a DA Women’s Day event by the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has opened her to fierce criticism by the ANC and the SACP, even prompting calls for her to resign. Is this a fight worth having and what if they got what they wish for? Madonsela in the opposition could be the ANC’s biggest nightmare. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

These days, a striking weakness in the ANC is that people don’t appear to think things through when they go on the offensive over an issue. The debacle around The Spear painting was a prime example where it appeared, as the issue reached its climax, that the ANC seemed uncertain how far to push the matter and when to pull back.

For a while there, the country was held hostage to the saga as the ANC, spurred on by its alliance partners, upped the ante and purposefully escalated the crisis. Thanks to the buckling of City Press and the Goodman Gallery, the furore died down and ANC officials returned to their perch at Luthuli House.

Last Friday, the ANC chief whip in Parliament Mathole Motshekga set his guns on Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, attacking her for addressing a Democratic Alliance Women’s Network event in Port Elizabeth on Women’s Day. 

“Advocate Madonsela’s decision to attend a political party rally was ill-considered as it opens up her office to perceptions of political bias. The Constitution requires that the Public Protector be independent, impartial and to exercise her powers without fear or prejudice.

“Attending and giving keynote addresses at political events of political parties has the potential to compromise these basic constitutional principles, which the public protector is enjoined to uphold and promote. With the perceptions of the public protector’s closeness to the party, members of the public will be justified to ask how she will in future treat complaints against the administrations under the DA,” Motshekga said in a statement.

Madonsela’s office responded saying the DA event was incorporated into the Public Protector’s national stakeholder consultative dialogue for 2012, “which includes accommodating special interest groups that request a specialised interface” with her.

“The public protector’s address focused on the constitutional promise to women and people of South Africa, and ensuring that the mechanisms are in place to assist the people to hold the state accountable. The main thrust of  [Madonsela’s] speech was on the public protector’s role as one of the public accountability institutions.

“As normally happens in these outreach meetings, people were given an opportunity to ask questions and lodge complaints, which they did. A lot of the complaints related to RDP housing challenges… The public protector does not decline any request by community groups that require her services,” Madonsela’s office said in a statement.

But the South African Communist Party was not satisfied with the explanation and tore into Madonsela, calling her a liar whose claims that she attended the DA event as part of a stakeholder dialogue were “bizarre”.

“The public protector owes the public a full and credible explanation, otherwise this behaviour on her part reinforces our strongly held suspicion that she is willingly being held hostage by, and a useful hand of, the anti-majoritarian liberal offensive against government and our Alliance. For her to allow the office of the public protector to be used for partisan political interests can only serve to destroy the credibility of this institution.

“In the past we have placed on record however our concerns by what appears to be serious deviations by some of the recent actions of the public protector; actions that run the risk of demeaning the stature of this important institution. This includes the selectivity in handling of matters brought before her, the seemingly kow-towing to the DA in investigations concerning them, and now, to break the camel’s straw (sic), attending their rally,” the party said in a statement on Sunday.

“Our country, as the Constitution prescribes, requires a Public Protector not a Partisan Protector,” the SACP fumed.

Madonsela however insists the event was not a DA rally, as portrayed by the ANC.

“I got an invitation to address 500 women who wanted to know more about their constitutional rights and the role of my office,” she told Eyewitness News. She is to meet with the ANC in September to discuss the issue.

The United Democratic Movement’s leader Bantu Holomisa said the ANC was overreacting.

“The ANC is becoming spoiled. Some of these Chapter 9 institutions have graced their events, but you never see them attending events of other political parties,” he told Eyewitness News.

However ANC and SACP members have taken to social media networks and news discussion forums to call for Madonsela’s resignation.

“Thuli Madonsela’s conduct has compromised the impartiality and independence in her office. She must resign,” Young Communist League spokesman Khaya Xaba said on Twitter.

It remains to be seen how far the ANC and SACP will push the issue and whether they will manoeuvre for Madonsela’s removal as public protector. If they force the issue, where would that leave the woman who was named by Daily Maverick as 2011 South African Person of the Year “for serving her role as an ombudsman to the exercise of executive power with unwavering commitment to truth”?

Let’s look at her track record to see what options are open to her.

Madonsela is a human rights and constitutional lawyer, equality expert and policy specialist. According to her profile, her postgraduate studies include partial LLM studies and legal courses mainly in the area of equality, administrative justice, legal drafting and public administration.

She is one of the drafters of South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution and co-architect of Justice Vision 2000, the national action plan on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, Employment Equity Act, Local Government Transition Act, and has contributed to several other laws enacted to transform the SA legal system since 1994, including the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act and the Repeal of the Black Administration Act.

Before being appointed public protector in 2009, Madonsela was the only full-time commissioner in the South African Law Reform Commission. Madonsela has been involved in human rights and civic activism since the early eighties. She was national organiser for the Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union between 1987 and 1989, and in the nineties she worked on projects for the ANC in Gauteng. 

Her political leaning is clearly towards the ANC but since becoming public protector, Madonsela has not hesitated to dish out harsh criticism against ANC officials in the state. Former ministers Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde and Sicelo Shiceka as well as former police commissioner Bheki Cele are the most notable examples.

Those who accuse her of now tilting towards the DA use her investigation of the controversial Western Cape communications tender as an example of her supposed bias. In a leaked draft report on the matter, Madonsela initially found there was wrongdoing in the awarding of the contract and that the entire tender should be scrapped. However, after final input from Premier Helen Zille’s office and the province’s senior counsel, the final report absolves the Western Cape.

They conveniently forget that last November Madonsela found the DA-run Midvaal municipality guilty of maladministration and improper conduct. But while her addressing of a DA event may be a smudge on her record – which earned her the ignominy of being “loser of the week” on eTV’s The Justice Factor – Madonsela remains South Africa’s premier corruption-buster and a media darling.

She has earned enormous public confidence and trust through her work as public protector and is a dynamic anti-corruption campaigner. She holds public attention when she speaks and by being extremely accessible to the media, gives the impression that public perception is an important part of her work.

As a corruption-buster, the public loves her. As a politician, she could possibly sweep the floor.

The DA has been scrounging around for a black leader to succeed Zille who would negate its image as a white party with token black support. It has not been able to draw anyone high-profile with the seniority and struggle credentials to fit that bill, although there has been talk that it had set its sights on academic Mamphela Ramphele.

However, if Madonsela is driven out of her position as public protector and iced out of the state, the DA might well approach her to top their election ticket. Although Madonsela has never been a politician, her charisma and sterling public profile could easily carry her as an impressive leader of the opposition.

Those in the ANC and SACP now calling for her head would do well to think it through before they make an enemy of Madonsela. Many people in South Africa, including in their ranks who bemoan the dearth of leadership in the ruling party, would be only too pleased to put a cross next to her name on a ballot paper. DM

Photo: Thuli Madonsela (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)


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