Why would we trust her when she has now inserted herself into a controversial debate about the role and function of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB)? Given the delicate political moment South Africa is in and the many charlatans who have their hands on the levers of power, her intervention was naïve at best and deliberately destructive at worst.
In a bizarre twist arising out of her recommendations for remedial action in the Absa “lifeboat” matter, Mkwhebane has recommended that Parliament via its Justice Committee “must” initiate a process that will ensure the amendment of s224 of the Constitution.
That section deals with the role, function and independence of the SARB. Going even further, Mkhwebane provides draft wording for the changing of s224. It currently reads: “The primary object of the South African Reserve Bank is to protect the value of the currency in the interest of balanced and sustainable economic growth in the Republic.”
The Public Protector’s mealy-mouthed wording would read: “The primary object of the SARB is to promote balanced and sustainable economic growth, while ensuring that the socio-economic well-being of the citizens are protected.” Deleted therefore is the mandate of the SARB to protect the value of the currency. In response to Mkhwebane’s recommendation, the rand fell by 2% to the US dollar. But in a country where the President himself sabotages the economy, this would constitute a mere trifle.
The argument about the powers of the SARB is a not a new one. Cosatu has always argued that the SARB’s role ought to be revisited. In fact only last year both Cosatu and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) called for the “nationalisation” of the SARB in light of the increase in the repo rate. The EFF also called for inflation targeting to be abandoned. SARB Governor Lesetja Kganyago has called it a “flexible inflation-targeting framework”. Kganyago, fiercely independent, immediately hit back at Mkwhebane’s recommendation saying that the SARB will take the Public Protector’s recommendation on review, as it is unconstitutional. And so it should. Unfortunately of course this means another court battle where our politics have failed and created a vacuum for those like Mkhwebane to even believe it is within her power to suggest such economic tinkering.
This remedial action is curious, to say the least. First, where does Mkhwebane believe her mandate comes from? She has no constitutional power to order the democratically elected Parliament to amend the Constitution. Why would the Public Protector meddle in what is an economic and political issue and completely outside her mandate? She could quite easily have made the recommendations she did regarding Absa’s liability without straying into the territory of the SARB’s powers.
It thus raises uncomfortable but necessary questions about the Public Protector herself and her integrity. If one were to be charitable one could say that she does not have a full grasp of the law or the powers of her office. But even being charitable would in this case be a rather scathing indictment on her competence. It is strange that Mkhwebane would make such a dramatic foray into an economic policy matter on her own and pluck this specific recommendation out of thin air. There is too much information in the public domain that provides proof that there is a sustained attack on our democratic institutions from both within and outside of government and the ANC.
So, one might ask whether it is a coincidence that this recommendation and attack on the SARB has come soon after the President’s associates, the Guptas, who are at the centre of state capture allegations, have had several clashes with South African banks? In the last year many of their accounts have been shut down. It was also Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane who last year questioned the role of the SARB in managing and licensing banks and sought to have that power transferred to the Finance Minister. Apparently, Zwane was speaking not on behalf of Cabinet but rather was on a flight of his own fancy. Hot on his heels, came ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte who expressed “difficulty” that the SARB was “privately owned”.
One does not really need to be a conspiracy theorist to see a narrative building in relation to the role of the SARB and the links with the Guptas. Add to this the axing of Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas, without reason, in the middle of the night and the subsequent appointment of the feckless Malusi Gigaba and Sfiso Buthelezi and the pattern of capture is quite clear. Gigaba and Buthelezi have serious allegations of corruption swirling around them. Both are unfit to control the public purse; they have neither the integrity nor ability to be at the helm of the economy.
Zwane, a critic of the SARB’s powers has himself been implicated in several of the #Guptaleaks emails. These emails have also revealed without doubt that the “white monopoly capital” rhetoric being spewed forth mindlessly by the likes of Andile Mngxitama, Mzwanele Manyi and Collen Maine and the rest of “Paid Twitter” are a fiction of London-based PR firm Bell Pottinger. Presumably everyone has his or her price. Interestingly no one has seriously questioned the veracity of the leaked emails.
So for the Public Protector to dramatically recommend as drastic a step as the amendment of the Constitution, it does make one wonder whose side she is on and whether she is “taking instructions” from elsewhere. Given what we know about most of the Cabinet, including the President, and their deference to Dubai, it is a reasonable question to ask.
Mkhwebane has also been sitting on reports regarding the relationship between the ANC and the Guptas even as she has declared her intention to oppose President Jacob Zuma’s review of the state capture report. She seems to have hesitatingly agreed to investigate the #Guptaleaks emails but not without the caveat that her office lacks the resources and so will probably not be able to do a complete job. Well, that did not stop her predecessor, Thuli Madonsela. How we miss Madonsela’s integrity and her unflinching ability to speak truth to power.
The EFF has said that it regrets supporting Mkhwebane’s appointment. There were many (this writer included) who gave Mkhwebane the benefit of the doubt when she was appointed. But the time for that is over. With her inexplicable decision to stray beyond her mandate, we can reasonably ask whether Mkhwebane herself is not “captured”? She needs to prove otherwise in the months and years ahead. DM
Judith February is a governance specialist, columnist and lawyer. She is currently based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the WITS School of Governance. She was previously executive director of the HSRCs Democracy and Governance unit and also head of the Idasas South African Governance programme for 12 years.
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