A stench pervades South Africa's Chapter 9 institutions
Opinion / 12 October 2019, 12:08pm / William Saunderson-Meyer
It’s not yet the full-blown stench that makes the stomach heave. It’s just an occasional malodorous whiff, subtly alerting us to something going off.
In this case, it’s the first signals that the most important aspect of South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy, an even-handed and independent judicial system, is under toxic strain. A few rot spots are beginning to show.
It was the establishment of the so-called Chapter Nine institutions - particularly the Office of the Public Protector and the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) - that held greatest promise in foiling any attack on democracy.
International jurists hailed it as elevating South Africa’s constitution above most.
That’s not how it is working out. The Office of the Public Protector had a moment of glory under Thuli Madonsela, ironically appointed by former president Jacob Zuma, whose nemesis she would prove to be.
But she was the exception. Her predecessors were pliant stooges, the ja-baas (yes boss) refrain no less vomit-making when chanted to placate a majority government.
The only memorable act by the first public protector, Selby Baqwa, was to thwart the arms probe that enriched ANC politicians. His successor, Lawrence Mushwana, was Zuma’s tool in the president’s battle with the National Prosecuting Authority to avoid corruption charges. At the end of his dismal term, he slithered straight out of the public protector’s office into the chairmanship of the SAHRC.
After Madonsela, South Africa got the poisonous Busisiwe Mkhwebane, who has proved to be more disastrous than anyone could have imagined.
Despite all this, she is still there creating havoc - barely three years into a seven-year term - after being put into office by MPs who at the time boasted that they had chosen her rather than her closest rival because they preferred a black person to a white person.
These same MPs are now seemingly at a loss on how to get rid of her before she implodes her entire office without getting any free-flying messy stuff on their Hugo Boss suits.
The travails of the office are echoed at the SAHRC. For years, it has been criticised for its apparent race bias - its speedy and unambiguous findings against white-trash bigots, while dragging its heels in bringing charges against high-ranking black politicians and then going through intellectual contortions to exculpate over threats of a future genocide against minorities.
Like the Office of the Public Protector, the SAHRC has waning integrity.
Last week, SAHRC legal head Buang Jones made some extraordinarily prejudicial statements about Springbok rugby player Eben Etzebeth, who had been accused of a racial slur during a pub scuffle.
Etzebeth is playing in the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The SAHRC laid a hate speech charge against Etzebeth and Jones was deployed to represent the complainants. At a public meeting with the aggrieved community, Buang vowed to “set an example” of Etzebeth, whom he accused of “getting away with murder”, and demanded that Etzebeth should forthwith be recalled to face the music.
The Jones incident is worrying for several reasons.
The SAHRC seems to be dumbfounded that people are appalled that its legal head effectively declares the subject of a complaint not only to be guilty of an offence that he has not yet appeared in court for, but also several other unspecified offences from the dim and distant past, for which he has never been charged. It means that this juristically critical institution simply doesn’t grasp a basic tenet of the law - innocent until proven guilty.
Jones’ behaviour is that of a mob violence instigator and should bring into question how he got the job.
In this regard, the SAHRC is probably trusting to events to absolve it of prolonged embarrassment, since Jones voluntarily may not be there for much longer.
No, not because he intends to resign in belated shame at revealing to all South Africa his legal ineptitude and ethical turpitude.
It’s because like Mushwana, Jones is a player in the institutionally incestuous world of endless cadre rotation for the serially useless, and has been nominated for the position of deputy public protector.
Nothing much changes.
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