20 gruelling hours of Public Protector interviews
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Parliament – The 20-hour marathon interviews of 14 candidates shortlisted to fill the shoes of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela ended in the early hours of Friday.
Alleged corruption, rape and reckless driving, an altercation with a superior and negligent and unprofessional conduct were just some of the skeletons that haunted some of the candidates interviewed at Parliament.
The candidates were forced to declare their past conduct when grilled about their integrity and credentials, in what was an indication that Madonsela’s resilience in the face of persistent attacks from politicians during her term has made her shoes difficult to fill.
Some of the candidates appeared to stumble through their responses while others seemed impressive, judging from the public responses.
At times tempers flared as candidates were taken to task by MPs over past indiscretions and decisions.
The interviews started just after 8am on Thursday morning with advocate Michael Mthembu, who is currently an electoral court judge, outlined his decades-long legal career.
He ran into trouble with MPs after being forced to concede he had that failed to service a bank loan, which resulted in a judgement against him.
Judge Siraj Desai faced a barrage of critical questions from the opposition party MPs, who suggested he is the African National Congress’s (ANC) favourite to succeed Madonsela.
At times Desai was visibly irritated by the questions, prompting Economic Freedom Fighters MP Floyd Shivambu to point out that Madonsela routinely had to contend with insults, notably being called a CIA agent. The public protectors’ findings against state entities have earned her enemies.
“I don’t think you have the temperament to handle that,” Shivambu said.
Desai agreed that he should not have taken offence. He described himself as an excellent candidate at the end of an introductory submission to the ad hoc parliamentary committee interviewing candidates, which he began by stressing his struggle credentials.
“I have been an activist for almost four decades,” Desai said, before describing his childhood in District 6 and saying it shaped his world view.
Desai was questioned on an alleged rape incident in Mumbai in India in 2004 but he said he was never convicted of rape and the charges were withdrawn against him.
The oldest of the candidates, 77-year-old advocate Christ Mokoditwa, was questioned about his age. He drew laughter from MPs when he declared: “I’m fit and I am a bodybuilder. I have said it in my CV.”
Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller had to defend her integrity, as MPs questioned her about disciplinary proceedings against her while employed at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
“I had submitted a medical certificate to the incorrect person and this led to a verbal warning. There was another case I was found to be unethical in terms of assisting a doctoral student with editorial work,” she said.
Bohler-Muller, however, insisted that there was a clear finding that these cases did not affect her integrity. She said the cases were removed from her record three years ago.
Madonsela’s former deputy, Mamiki Goodman (nee Shai), was interviewed next. MPs took her to task over her very public clashes with her former bosses.
Goodman, who served a seven-year stint as deputy public protector and who famously hurled accusations at Madonsela in Parliament in 2012 of bullying and of being politically biased, admitted she was on suspension from the National Gambling Board.
Goodman had not declared this fact in a questionnaire sent to all candidates shortlisted for the position of public protector.
“You are now suspended because you have accused somebody… you have a history of confrontation with your superiors,” Democratic Alliance MP Glynnis Breytenbach charged.
She asked Goodman if she was responsible for causing “mayhem” in the public protector’s office, given that she had also accused Lawrence Mushwana, Madonsela’s predecessor, of sexual harassment. Various inquiries looked into the allegations made by Goodman but none of them could be proved.
Goodman denied causing mayhem and instead blamed the media for casting her in a bad light.
“There is a good thing you will find in me if you let yourself understand me for who I am, not how the media has described me…,” she said.
“I’m afraid that conflict is necessary… everywhere (where) I’m accused, is where I’m trying to rectify the wrong. It is unfortunate that people view the people that are raising the wrongs as the people who are wrong.”
Executive Director of the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC), Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, was questioned about her organisation’s litigation against the SA government compelling it to execute an International Criminal Court warrant of arrest on Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir.
Ramjathan-Keogh, a human rights lawyer, defended the SALC’s decision to take on the government, saying: “There were several options available to the State. They could have asked him not to come. They could have arrested him when he arrived … they chose to do none of this.”
“The State failed in its obligation and the SALC was holding the State accountable.”
Madonsela’s deputy Kevin Malunga’s candidacy was thrown into doubt as it emerged half an hour before his interview that MPs had received a letter from the State Security Agency informing them that Malunga lacked the required level of clearance.
The Right2Know campaign said the Public Protector Act was silent on this point, but this did not mean that the position did not require full clearance. It suggested that he may have been denied clearance because he was born in Zimbabwe and was a naturalised South African citizen.
Malunga in his opening remarks to the committee said that he was “born in the then Rhodesia 43 years ago”.
The timing of the letter from the intelligence services raised eyebrows among observers at the interviews. It was sent to the committee a week ago, on August 4.
Khoza asked Malunga to state explicitly when he arrived in South Africa and whether he held dual citizenship, adding that the answer had “very serious implications”.
“I denounced the Zim citizenship in 2010,” he said, before adding that he travelled between Zimbabwe and South Africa frequently and musing that this might “pose a problem for the security services”.
Shivambu said the letter was highly prejudicial and Malunga should have been informed of it and given the opportunity to respond earlier. He questioned Khoza’s motives for submitting the letter, leading to a heated exchange between the two.
Judge Sharise Weiner also faced gruelling questions. Shivambu asked her about her role during the Struggle against apartheid during her years as a student in the 1970s. She was unfazed, explaining her role as “one of the founding members of Lawyers for Human Rights”.
“I was part of what was the precursor to the Wits Law Council in those days for dealing with oppressed people,” she replied.
"I was also involved in many cases of getting young blacks off (out of trouble) who were holding Free Mandela coffee mugs,” she said.
Another candidate, Jill Oliphant,was charged with negligent and reckless driving in 2010. She was not convicted.
Former Asset Forfeiture Unit and Special Investigating Unit head Willie Hofmeyr was another candidate asked some tough questions, particularly relating to his role in the dropping of corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma.
“How should we trust you… we suspect that you are just an extension of the person you decided not to charge,” Shivambu asked.
Hofmeyr said he had no role in the decision not to charge Zuma along with his advisor Schabir Shaik. He then reflected on the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) decision seven years ago to withdraw 783 criminal charges against Zuma shortly before the 2009 national elections as a “rather lengthy and painful story” and said history would judge him and the others who took it.
But Hofmeyr maintained that there was “irrefutable evidence that the previous head of the Scorpions and the previous head of the NPA were playing an extremely partisan role in trying to influence the politics in the ANC as to who would be the next president”.
The evidence, recorded on the so-called spy tapes, would have emerged, he contended, and the NPA would have found itself in court defending political meddling.
In April, the North Gauteng High Court rejected the reasons for the withdrawal, ruling that the decision was irrational and Zuma should face the charges. The NPA is now seeking to appeal the ruling.
“We all knew the decision would be litigated against and I think it is right that the court should take the final decision. History will judge us one way or another. For my part I certainly thought it was important to try and retrieve the integrity of the NPA,” Hofmeyr said.
The others interviewed were Nonkosi Cetywayo, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, Bongani Majola and Muvhango Lukhaimane.
The gruelling interviews ended at just after 3am, more than 19 hours after they started.
African News Agency and The Star