South Africa


Queen to pawn four: It’s your turn to move, Madam Speaker

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane and National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise (Photos: Felix Dlangamandla / Netwerk24 / Leila Dougan / Background: Unsplash / Teodor Drobota)

A poorly prepared move to impeach Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane would be disastrous. But it can be done if the ANC, from the top down, sings from the same hymn sheet.

Thandi Modise is spoiling for a fight. On the Speaker of Parliament’s table is a letter on which Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s fate depends. This week Parliament’s Justice Portfolio Committee resolved to move the debate on Mkhwebane to her, so she can formally refer it to the rules committee.

This is not going to be an easy matter, as Parliament has no set rules for the impeachment of a public protector.

The public mood is increasingly against Mkhwebane, after a string of court cases that are damaging to her standing. This is likely to embolden some politicians in the African National Congress (ANC) to move to impeach her. But there are risks as the ANC is not united – to put it mildly.

Since the hotly contested Nasrec battle in 2017, the party has not moved forward. Comrades still treat each other as opponents. Jacob Zuma is no longer at the helm of the party, but the political infrastructure that backed him is still in place.

The Premier League group that did his bidding got weakened when one of its key pillars, David Mabuza, dumped the faction. He made a last-minute move and jumped to the CR17 camp, helping Cyril Ramaphosa cross over the line, beating opponent Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

Despite one member of the faction slipping away, the group has demonstrated it is not a one-legged stool. Its other members, Ace Magashule and Supra Mahumapelo, are still united. Mahumapelo is now the chairman of Parliament’s tourism committee, while Magashule pulls the strings from Luthuli House as the party’s chief administrator, and effectively its chief spokesman too.

Magashule managed to park some of his allies in key positions in the Parliamentary setup. For example, the likes of Faith Muthambi and Bongani Bongo carry weight in the New Dawn Parliament as if Jacob Zuma, under whose tenure they got prominence, was still around.

The parliamentary caucus of 231 largely represents the Nasrec split. But due to patronage networks, the faction around Ramaphosa will always be more attractive. That gives them the upper hand in wooing adversaries within the party.

But when it comes to voting Mkhwebane out or not, the Ramaphosa camp is bound to act with some degree of trepidation.

What if its opponents within the ANC sided with the Economic Freedom Fighters to make sure Mkhwebane remains in office?

I have argued in the past that the EFF has a vested interest in Mkhwebane’s continued tenure. They see her as an effective ally in the battle against Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, and to an extent Ramaphosa too. The red berets are also friends of many dodgy characters who feel threatened as the New Dawn revitalises public institutions such as SARS and NPA. They will do their best to defend her. That is despite many previous statements in which Julius Malema, EFF boss, made stinging criticisms of Mkhwebane. He also previously backed Gordhan, characterising him as a victim of the Zuma gang.

So, considering all the optics, a poorly prepared move to impeach Mkhwebane would be disastrous. But it can be done if the ANC, from the top down, sings from the same hymn sheet.

The NEC or the Top Six would need to send the message down to Parliament, effectively giving the marching orders. It appears Ramaphosa is more comfortable in the NEC than a year ago. That space needs him to assert his authority, and to do so consistently.

But he is a hugely methodical and patient leader, which on the downside creates the impression that he is excessively dithering.

Also, Mkhwebane is likely to challenge the impeachment in court, leading to another spectacle that takes public attention away from the work Ramaphosa does, effectively fortifying public frustration with the slow pace of the so-called New Dawn. This makes it one of those phases of a gingerly trodden tightrope for Ramaphosa.

But his camp is no longer patient. It emerged last weekend that Modise had criticised the Justice Committee for moving “a bit slowly” on the Mkhwebane impeachment issue.

She also finds Mkhwebane’s “tone” out of order. The biggest question is whether or not the caucus is ready for her to put the final nail in the Mkhwebane coffin. DM


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