Like any judgment in a court of law, a report of the Public Protector is not above criticism. Although it is a criminal offence to insult the Public Protector or to say anything about an investigation that would have constituted contempt of court if it had been said of court proceedings, criticism of the findings of the Public Protector should be welcomed. However, some of the criticism levelled at the Public Protector’s Nkandla Report is so far off the mark that no rational person, acting in good faith, could possibly have made it.
The investigation and report of the Public Protector into the use of public funds for large-scale construction at President Jacob Zuma’s private homestead near Nkandla, and into Zuma’s denials about this to the National Assembly, can indeed be faulted.
This is illustrated by the failure of the Public Protector to use her extensive legal powers to try to prevent the president from thwarting the investigation and her failure to act more decisively to try and force him to comply with his legal duties.
Section 7(4) (read with section 9(3)) of the Public Protector Act renders it a criminal offence for any person to refuse or fail to produce any document in his or her possession or under his or her control which has a bearing on the matter being investigated. It also renders it a criminal offence to refuse to answer questions duly put to that person by the Public Protector about an investigation.
However, when the president failed to answer most of the relevant questions put to him by the Public Protector and further failed to provide evidence of the alleged bond (as he was legally required to do), the Public Protector did not force him to comply with the law.
Neither did she refer the president’s failure to answer most of her questions and to furnish her with information about the alleged bond to the police or the National Prosecuting Authority for further investigation and possible criminal prosecution.
The Public Protector also did not make use of section 7A of the Act to obtain a search and seizure warrant allowing her office to search the private home and the office of the president for documents relating to the investigation which the president had illegally refused to hand over to her office.
Furthermore, the Public Protector found that the claim made by President Zuma to the National Assembly that his family had built its own houses and the state had not built any for it or benefited them was not true. However, curiously, she found that this false statement could have been a bona fide mistake.
This finding is almost certainly wrong. Given the extensive evidence of the president’s knowledge of (and involvement in) the project, it is not credible to believe that the president did not intend misleading the NA when he made this false statement.
After all, her report contains evidence that the president was shown designs for the swimming pool for his approval. How could he then in good faith have told the National Assembly that he and his family had paid for all non-security related construction at Nkandla?
But those who have been criticising the Nkandla Report have not done so because they are worried that the president’s involvement in the scandal was not investigated as vigilantly as it could have been. Instead, they have bizarrely criticised the Report for making any findings of wrongdoing against the president and for requiring him to repay a small part of the amount with which he and his family had unlawfully been enriched.
A good example of this flawed and entirely biased reasoning can be found in an article penned by attorney Krish Naidoo, and published in The New Age.
It is clear from the article that Mr Naidoo did not read the Public Protector’s Report.
He claims that the Public Protector had?invoked section 140 of the Constitution in justifying her finding that the president had not complied with the Executive Members Code of Ethics. A quick word search of the Report confirms that section 140 is not mentioned in the Report at all. In fact, the Public Protector correctly cited section 96 of the Constitution in support of her findings.
It is unclear why Mr Naidoo would make a clearly untrue statement in this regard.
Although the argument is difficult to follow, Mr Naidoo also seems to claim that the president’s Oath of Office in Schedule 2 of the Constitution does not contain words to the effect that the president must “protect and promote the rights of all people within the republic”. This is a curious claim as a quick perusal of Schedule 2 immediately reveals that these exact words are contained in the Schedule.
Why Mr Naidoo would make such a clearly untrue statement is not clear.
Mr Naidoo also claimed that the Public Protector plagiarised a statement that “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher.” However, on page 4 of her Report this statement – serving as one of the mottos to the Report – is clearly attributed to Justice Louis D Brandeis, US Supreme Court Justice.
Once again it is unclear why this false claim of plagiarism was made at all. Even if Mr Naidoo had only read up to page 4 of the Report, he would have discovered that the claim of plagiarism couldn’t be sustained.
In disputing the Public Protector’s finding that the president was in breach of section 2 of the Executive Members Ethics Code, Mr Naidoo argued that the Code only applied in cases where the president had failed to comply with a constitutional duty and that no such duty to protect state resources can be derived from the Constitution.
This is not true as section 2 of the Code places a wide-ranging set of legal duties on, amongst others, the president to:
“(a) perform their duties and exercise their powers diligently and honestly;
(b) fulfill all the obligations imposed upon them by the Constitution and law; and
(c) act in good faith and in the best interest of good governance, and
(d) act in all respects in a manner that is consistent with the integrity of their office or the government.”
This means, even where no constitutional or other legal duty is imposed on the president to protect state resources, the Code – imposing a broad ethical duty that can be legally enforced – requires him at all times to act in good faith and in the best interest of good government.
Recall that the Executive Members Ethics Act, which gives effect to section 96 of the Constitution, authorises the Public Protector to investigate breaches of the Executive Members Ethics Code. In fact this Act places a legal duty on her to do so.
In other words, the Executive Members Ethics Act, read with the Code, place a legal duty on the president to act ethically to pursue what is in the best interest of good government.
Where the president fails to stop unlawful action which has the effect of financially benefitting him in ways that go far beyond security related upgrades, it can surely not be said that he had acted in good faith in the best interest of good government.
But this is not the end of the matter. Even if – like Mr Naidoo – one wrongly focused only on the sub-section of the Code that requires a constitutional or legal duty to have been breached before there can be any finding of wrongdoing by the president, it is clear that the various sections of the Constitution (read together) impose a constitutional duty on the president to protect state resources.
This is so because section 83(b) of the Constitution states that the president “must uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic”. Section 96(2)(b) further states that the president – as is the case with other members of Cabinet – may not “act in any way that is inconsistent with their office, or expose themselves to any situation involving the risk of a conflict between their official responsibilities and private interests”.
Section 195(b) of the Constitution furthermore places a legal duty on the public administration to promote the “[e]fficient, economic and effective use of resources”.
All these sections, read together, clearly place a constitutional duty on the president to prevent a situation where his public duties as president and his private interests collide, as was clearly the case here.
Moreover, where state resources are used improperly to benefit the president and his family in ways that have nothing to do with his security, where he clearly is aware that the resources have been spent in this way and where he fails to halt this, he is clearly in breach of his constitutional obligations as set out above. This is so because he has then not promoted efficient, economic and effective use of resources as he is constitutionally obliged to do.
This is underscored by the fact that the president is the head of the cabinet and the executive authority of the Republic is vested in him. As a cabinet member he is individually and collectively accountable for the actions of the government.
But as head of the executive, ultimate responsibility for the use of state resources rests with the president. In the terminology of the American Presidency, our constitution clearly enforces the principle that: “the buck stops with the president”. To hold otherwise would be to ignore the fact that the executive authority of the Republic vests in him.
While the Public Protector Report is not perfect, the bizarre and sometimes completely untrue claims made with the aim of discrediting the Report are worrying. It suggests either that critics have not read the Report or are unwilling or unable to understand the most basic arguments contained in the Report, or that they are willfully trying to mislead the public by making claims that they know are untrue. DM
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Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon