Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Photo: Screengrab/African News Agency (ANA)
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Photo: Screengrab/African News Agency (ANA)

Public Protector vote raises questions about the way SA is governed

By Opinion Time of article published Mar 25, 2021

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Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

The faction-ridden ANC doesn’t seem to recognise the notion that a democratic government should be open to continuous scrutiny, or that accountability offers the opportunity for improvement.

It’s as if the role of the inquiry to probe Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s fitness to hold office is to write history on the party failures in the government rather than contribute to good government.

This attitude of defensive introspection has been at the heart of widening divisions in the ANC recently evident when the secretary-general Ace Magashule’s stance was at odds with that of the national chair Gwede Mantashe.

Despite early rhetoric about “the ANC (that) cannot change its character, the ANC (that) cannot sleep with the enemy”, the ANC has in fact not been guided by principles on the Mkhwebane matter, and instead preferred to rely on its own factionalised judgments reached in the closed culture of the Luthuli House.

It is this closed culture that allowed the ANC government to avoid implementing the public protector’s remedial actions in 2016, which demonstrated the abuse of public funds in relation to the renovations of former president Jacob Zuma’s private residence, as well as identifying the vulnerability to corruption of various government departments’ supply chain.

This led to the opposition parties winning a Constitutional Court case and compelling Parliament to enforce the remedial actions, instead of the institution proactively doing so.

It is because of the same culture that a number of key government reports and documents are published once they are no longer under live consideration, while government departments create hurdles out of the legal requirements and time frames meant to facilitate access to information under the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

This probe into Mkhwebane’s fitness to hold office must proceed, also because it is not only of interest to historians.

It affects the way Parliament and the public protector’s office are making decisions today. No one pretends that the strong reasons for proceeding with the probe are easy to handle. There are no precedents for this challenge and the evidence and circumstances are changing fast.

But those circumstances should have made several things clear in favour of a united ANC voice in Parliament.

First, all MPs are elected to represent the people, and not factional party interests. As such, a motion moved to ensure an accountable government deserves support, irrespective of the party affiliation of that member sponsoring it.

Second, it is important that the advice reaching Parliament on options to resolve the allegations against Mkhwebane reflects all angles.

It is unlikely that any single group of individuals would be able to speak authoritatively outside of the proposed probe on all relevant developments.

This reality should lead to a conscious effort to ensure that the process of providing evidence that will form the basis of the determination by Parliament is open and thorough, and that all qualified opinions were welcome.

Third, Parliament needs to engage the public in understanding the processes followed to arrive at the conclusion of the matter so as to ensure the legitimacy of both the process and the outcome.

That does not have to require making every citizen a qualified lawyer, but it will have to involve an honest public discussion about the seriousness of the matters inherent to the allegations against Mkhwebane.

Political slogans and uncertainty about adherence to processes make uncomfortable bedfellows.

Fourth, Parliament must demonstrate that their own decision-making is responding quickly and accurately to the evolving situation, including taking into account the court judgments that continue to punctuate the matter.

If citizens are expected to trust the ANC-led government and continue to vote for it, they are entitled to expect their government to do the same when handling the Mkhwebane matter, which entangles the use of private money to buy political influence in the ANC and the government.

None of these propositions are inherently political. There is no ANC view of fighting corruption in our society any more than there is a DA view of incompetence in our government.

Only in the institutionally polarised world of the ANC do these basic principles become matters of factional party politics.

But the result of this political culture in the ANC is that bad practice has resulted in bad decisions, with profound political consequences that stretch well beyond the direct professional impacts of Mkhwebane’s alleged missteps that are under the investigation at hand.

The Mkhwebane probe has exacerbated the ANC internal weaknesses that have been building for years. As a result of the combined effects of the commotion in the ANC, many of the citizens that already feel left behind will have further reason to doubt that the ANC-led government works for them.

The case for a public inquiry into the matter is not simply a desire to work out who knew what and when with respect to Mkhwebane’s alleged conduct, but to address fundamental questions about the way South Africa is governed.

Does our respect for our long proportional representation tradition undermine good governance in the modern South Africa? Does our polarised political system create the appearance of accountability without the substance?

Many people have suggested that this probe might be the catalyst for a relook into blind spots in our electoral system such as when a political party becomes a liability to a democracy.

We need this public inquiry to deal, not only with the immediate issues of the public protector, but also the long-term challenges of lack of accountability in our public institutions as well as in our politics, because the limping track record of some of our key institutions such as Parliament raises serious questions about whether they are capable of delivering this.

They say you should dress for the job you want, and perhaps, exposure-wise, the ANC should have maintained self-control for the majority political position they want to retain in the polls in all spheres of government across the nine provinces. It’s a bit late now.

* Nyembezi is a policy analyst and a human rights activist.

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

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