Picture: African News Agency (ANA)
Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

How will the ANC handle the public protector’s impeachment?

By Opinion Time of article published Mar 12, 2021

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Professor Sethulego Matebesi

No South African will deny that the most criticised Chapter Nine institution in recent times has been the Office of the Public Protector.

Five years ago, the National Assembly endorsed advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s candidacy as the fourth public protector with an overwhelming majority vote in 2016. Since then, a litany of adverse court rulings created a see-saw effect between those who support her and those who vehemently oppose her continuation as public protector.

This rift is likely to widen after an independent panel appointed by Parliament recently concluded that there is prima facie evidence of repeated incompetence and misconduct.

Still a long way before the public protector can be impeached

Of great concern is that the public protector failed in her attempts to obtain a court interdict to halt the inquiry into her fitness to hold office, pending her challenge of the rules that the National Assembly adopted for the impeachment process.

It is still a long way before the public protector can be impeached. In this regard, it is not the aim of this contribution to rehash the events leading up to the findings of the preliminary inquiry. The purpose here is to answer a question being asked about how the ANC will respond to the impeachment of the public protector.

One can use two critical points as prisms to understand the likely scenario that will play out: the history of voting in Parliament and the political currency of the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction inside the ANC.

For most of our history, voting in Parliament since the dawn of democracy has been – as can be expected – along party lines. Even when a deviation occurred, this was extremely low. A safe bet is that this voting pattern will persist because of MPs' strong inclination to conformity.

What is less predictable, is just how the whippery of the ANC will respond to the possibility of voting for or against the removal of the public protector. Elsewhere in the world, legislators are allowed to vote according to their conscience, rather than their party's official line on contentious issues.

PP's future depends on the ravenous political trade-offs between two ANC factions

Outside of Parliament, the ANC's RET faction has been encouraged by the actions of the party's secretary-general and the former president. They are aptly using the political currency of victim-hood to their advantage. The longer the court cases of Ace Magashule and Jacob Zuma drag on, the more political currency they gain in support of the ANC's RET faction.

With so many party members facing legal challenges, some of them are inevitably drawn to conspiracies. The political behaviour fostered by this group is an antithesis of constitutional democracy. This has turned into a power conundrum for the ANC, which has exploded over the past two years.

Ironically, the public protector's future depends on the ravenous political trade-offs between the two factions within the ANC. Like a swinging pendulum, her support is tilted mainly by those who trust and distrust her. These differences are not part of the normal give-and-take dynamics of politics. It is an outcome of politicians whose future depends entirely on their fightback strategy. Why then would an ANC MP who is sympathetic to the cause of the RET forces vote for the removal of the public protector?

In hindsight, this seems to be an eminently sensible general analysis of the issue. However, this analysis may be highly untenable in the eyes of an ANC MP. That the motion to remove the public protector came from the DA further compounds this situation.

But what is absurd and difficult to explain is the legal counsel of the public protector's argument that the DA has a vendetta against her and National Speaker Thandi Modise's questionable attitude. This is the narrative that some ANC MPs will advance to vote against the DA's motion and not protect constitutional democracy in South Africa.

Meanwhile, the pendulum of trust and distrust in the public protector keeps on swinging. But if we think the only solution to deal with the myriad and severe challenges faced by the public protector is her removal by Parliament, our wait for a solution will be much longer.

* Professor Matebesi is a senior lecturer and academic head of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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