Opinionista Judith February 14 August 2016

The Longest Groundhog Day

Thursday felt a little like Groundhog Day. The ad hoc committee on the Public Protector, chaired by Dr Makhosi Khoza, set out to interview the 14 candidates shortlisted for the position. In what must have been the most unintelligent bit of parliamentary scheduling, all the interviews happened in one day. Still, we managed to see at least one truly outstanding candidate, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh.

Candidates were “locked in” to ensure they were not privy to the questions being asked ahead of time. Inevitably the process ran late and the final interview was held at around 02:00. One can only hope that Parliament draws lessons from this deeply flawed process.

As the first interview started at 07:45 and the process wended its slow way, it became apparent that 14 was too long a shortlist. A shortlist of five candidates who had an actual shot at the job surely would have been sufficient?

How did the 77-year-old Adv Mokoditwa make the cut? Should he be successful he will be 84 when his term ends. One does not have to be ageist to deem such an appointment highly unlikely. Also, he was hardly a strong candidate.

We know however that the short-listing process was haphazard and there were no set criteria laid down by the committee. And so the committee sat through interviews with some candidates who were clearly completely out of their depth and whose naiveté showed. The candidates’ presentations were largely lost in the wash. Each believed in the rule of law and the Constitution and thought they had superior skills. Predictably so. This was always going to be about more than being technically qualified candidates and rather about independent-mindedness. As with so many job applicants who seem impressive on paper, once interviewed, the cracks show. And so it was. The committee did an admirable job in trying to deal with information about candidates that they had received via Corruption Watch.

Those sorts of questions went to the heart of the matter be it on judgment, misconduct or candidates’ business interests. One could easily pick those who were flustered, blustering or simply floundering during their interviews.

Judge Desai, however, must have been the stand-out candidate when it came to temperament. He seemed to think he was a shoo-in – never a good thing – and sauntered in without a scrap of paper. His presentation was largely about his “struggle” credentials and being a socialist. He managed to lose his temper when asked about his relationships with various colleagues at the Bar and Bench. All his responses boiled down to pretty much the same thing – the old guard dislikes me, I am not popular and, in relation to the so-called Mumbai incident, that it was all a conspiracy. One could not help feeling that Desai would be wholly inappropriate for the position given his inability to control his temper for a mere hour. He was forced to apologise to the committee for being unable to keep a cool head when asked whether he, well, could keep a cool head. QED on that one.

But if one was looking for the candidate with the most chutzpah, it must surely have been Mamiki Shai-Goodman. A former deputy Public Protector, she accused her boss of sexual harassment (though she denies that now) and sought to “report” Madonsela to Parliament for various “misdemeanours”. The late DA MP Dene Smuts dismissed this as “office politics”. Goodman is also at present suspended from her job at the National Gambling Board but maintains, without hint of irony it must be said, that she is a “peace-maker” in the workplace. How on earth did she make the shortlist?

All bluster was Kevin Malunga who seems to have fallen foul of a requirement that the Public Protector needs to have top secret security clearance. There is no mention of this in the Public Protector Act or the Constitution, however. Needless to say our Minister of State Security has been intervening in his ham-handed manner. Malunga has acted as Public Protector 30 times in Madonsela’s absence. Concerns about his security clearance should surely have been raised in his interview for the position of deputy? Somewhere, something is going on. Despite all this, Malunga does not seem to have the mettle for the position either. Too little substance and too brittle a personality it would appear.

Just as everyone was flagging late in the night came the truly outstanding candidate of the day, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh. This is what a Public Protector looks and sounds like. Grilled by the committee, especially the hackish ANC MP Amos Masondo, on her litigation against the state in the Al-Bashir matter, Ramjathan-Keogh stared down the committee. She was making no apology for fighting human rights cases against the state and for using donor money to do so. If that was unpalatable, so be it. She held the line. Here was someone who clearly has the courage and was not full of platitudes about the rule of law. But the animosity from the ANC was clear. As one tweet went, “she can kiss that job goodbye”. Pretty much.

The interview of candidate Adv Nonkosi Cetywayo, Sheriff of the Bellville High Court, was in sharp contrast. Many are tipping her as a favourite for the position. Cetywayo’s interview was weak and filled with too much ambiguity. She took an inordinately long time to admit that she was a paying member of the ANC. She appears to be a bureaucrat who could well turn into the loyalist the ANC needs. Her responses to questions regarding her involvement and knowledge of the Secure in Comfort report when she worked in the Speaker’s office were telling. In addition, she had some ideas regarding allocation of resources in the office which raised eyebrows.

Hers would be a disappointing appointment if it were to come to pass.

At midnight, a tired Willie Hofmeyr took his seat. It was not long before his decision to go along with Mokotedi Mpshe’s decision to drop the corruption charges against Jacob Zuma in 2009 came up. Hindsight is 20/20 vision and one could not help but feel a degree of empathy as Hofmeyr described “the pain” of that choice. A decent man, felled by the politics of the day. He might well be too risky an appointment for the ANC, who knows?

As the morning hours rolled on, one could not help but think that Prof Bongani Majola, a fine candidate, had also been short-changed by the lateness of his interview.

The interviews were broadcast live for which the committee should be commended. Interest in this process has been unprecedented. This is also largely due to the stature which Adv Thuli Madonsela has brought to the office and the respect South Africans have for it. The “open access” was however marred, albeit briefly by the parliamentary “protection services”. During the interviews, three women wearing Rape Crisis sweaters were asked to leave the downstairs area and sit in the public gallery upstairs, presumably out of sight. Did they fear another silent protest in the full glare of television cameras? The Protection Services officer could provide us with no reason why the ordinary members of the public were being asked to move. S59 of the Constitution is clear that committee meetings are open to the public unless there are exceptional circumstances which dictate otherwise.

Only after intervention by the committee secretary and threats of legal action were the women allowed back in. It was obvious that the parliamentary protection services did not believe they had to explain themselves or their breach of constitutional provisions. But that is probably just a sign of the times we live in.

The committee will deliberate on this process of undue haste and any candidate has to be approved by a 60% majority of the National Assembly. One wonders whether those committee deliberations will be open to the public. They should be. It’s hard not to be cynical these days but we need to trust the process and the scrutiny it is under. DM

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