Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. File picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
When the Constitutional Court delivered its landmark judgment in 2016 ordering former president Jacob Zuma to pay back some of the public funds used in the R250million security upgrade of his Nkandla home, a key aspect of our constitutional democracy was underpinned.

The ruling clarified the powers of the public protector: the office’s “recommendations” were to be complied with, unless successfully challenged in court. And it would not be an exaggeration to state that from then the spirit with which any organ of state was expected to interact with the protector was meant to be of collegial professional co-operation, if not comradely and cordial interlocution.

The disagreement that broke out in the public space this week between Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane and the police ministry is therefore troubling. While there is no problem with Minister Bheki Cele differing with Mkhwebane’s report and taking it to court for review, the contretemps that has emerged is a cause for worry for a number of reasons.

The report concerns an important weapon required in the fight against corruption and “political” killings. Whistle-blowers such as those it mentions need to be encouraged, supported and protected, to motivate others to come forward. There must be no doubt they will always get proper assistance from institutions such as the protector and the police.

Thabiso Zulu and Les Stuta, who delivered startling testimonies around the murder of former ANC Youth League leader Sindiso Magaqa last year, approached the protector after receiving death threats and no help from the police - something Mkhwebane described as “grossly negligent”. But Cele has “serious reservations” about the protector’s findings and recommendations.

The courts will be the final arbiter, but corruption will thrive in the interim and the killers, fearmongers and corrupt will not be deterred. Since the courts are not known for speed, President Cyril Ramaphosa needs to step in urgently.

Zulu, correctly, said the judicial review should not be viewed as an appeal. Indeed, the recommendations could be implemented right away and reviewed after a ruling. And steps should be taken to sort out glaring problems with the public protector.

Putting aside the controversial incumbent, Ramaphosa and Cele cannot be found to have failed to protect the office of the public protector and uphold the Constitution. That would be a grave error.

* Mazwi Xaba is the editor of the Sunday Tribune