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Hollowing out of state institutions continues – the public protector’s office a case in point


Zukiswa Pikoli is Daily Maverick's Managing Editor for Gauteng news and Maverick Citizen where she was previously a journalist and founding member of the civil society focused platform. Prior to this she worked in civil society as a communications and advocacy officer and has also worked in the publishing industry as an online editor.

The office of the Public Protector is supposed to be independent, with a mandate to support and strengthen constitutional democracy.

The curious case of advocate Kholeka Gcaleka, the acting Public Protector, is further proof – if any was needed – that our state institutions continue to be hollowed out and incapacitated.

Since advocate Thuli Madonsela’s departure from the office, it has been marred by controversy. Both incumbents, first advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane and now Gcaleka, have been accused of not protecting the public but rather the respective presidents of their time.

Mkhwebane was seen as a protector of Jacob Zuma and his State Capture allies, whereas Gcaleka, who has been put forward as her successor, is seen as doing the same for President Cyril Ramaphosa, whom she has cleared of any wrongdoing in the Phala Phala case.

We must understand that the Office of the Public Protector is a pivotal constitutional institution. It is supposed to be independent and its mandate is “to support and strengthen constitutional democracy”.

“A supreme administrative oversight body, the Public Protector has the power to investigate, report on and remedy improper conduct in all state affairs,” its website states.

The position is not merely about qualifications and experience; it requires integrity, a sense of justice and accountability, and good governance. The office therefore requires a calibre of person who is beyond reproach and will not be drawn into controversy or manipulated by the politically powerful, even if they are the president of the country.

For this to happen, however, the appointment process of such a person bears closer scrutiny.  The composition of the committee recommending the person should be such that it ensures impartiality. Its members should not be “toeing the party line”, but instead be mindful of and driven by the best interests of the South African public.

Worth mentioning is that two of the office’s founding principles are impartiality and transparency. “We will make our decisions based on objective criteria rather than on the basis of bias or prejudice,” the website states. “We strive to be open in the manner in which we conduct our investigations and deal with our customers.”

These principles have been missing in action since October 2016, when Mkhwebane was appointed. She is facing removal from office for misconduct and incompetence, while Gcaleka has been accused of producing a report that protects Ramaphosa as opposed to holding him accountable for his questionable transaction.

Unfortunately, the National Assembly has been found wanting when it comes to impartiality. Its members tend to advance their own political interests, even when doing so is blatantly at the public’s expense.

Until it corrects course in how state officials are selected, especially those working at guardian institutions like the Public Protector, we are doomed to watch these institutions hollow out even more.

Though political parties may have differing political ideologies, they can at least agree on the values a candidate must have, as these are clearly set out in the founding documents of the Public Protector’s office. And that is why this important position should not be sacrificed for the sake of political expedience. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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  • Josie Rowe-Setz says:

    Agree completely with the outline of what the PP work is and the principles. And the need for a very rigorous selection process.
    However, what evidence do we have that the current PP tried to protect Ramaphosa from Phala Phala?
    Mkhwebane has been shown to have been incompetent, and frankly, captured and way below the correct standard. Gcaleka has not been shown in any such light.
    I think if one disagrees with her judgement, it would be useful to know on what basis there is a disagreement and if it is warranted, before comparing her with a clearly captured person like Mkhwebane who has been found over and over again to have made appalling judgements. Perhaps we could wait for the various challenges to Gcaleka’s judgement before assuming she is similar to Mkhwebane.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    100% agree.

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