Opinion: Mkhwebane's flip-flopping raises serious questions over her fitness for office

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane

A democracy is only as strong as the institutions that underpin it. The legitimacy of those institutions depends on them maintaining their integrity, thereby preserving their credibility.

Once such institutions, particularly those such as the office of the public protector, which exercise oversight over the conduct of the state towards citizens, are brought into disrepute, so is the credibility and legitimacy of our democratic order brought into question.

More so, these institutions are also only as good as the individuals who lead them and constitute them. A leader's conduct and character becomes intertwined and inextricable from that of the institution.

It is often said that we must separate office from personality, but the personality of the office bearer easily affects, taints or infects the office.

Flip-flopping by public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane does not engender confidence in that important office.

Facing major criticism over the Absa report wherein she revealed a gross ignorance of the extent of her powers, she has now admitted that she made a mistake.

Her office conceded that the errors related to her findings that the South African Reserve Bank's mandate must be changed is on account of mistakes in the "legal crafting of her order".

In an affidavit she acknowledges that her remedial actions went too far and she would thus not oppose the SARB's review application over her report.

Unfortunately for Mkhwebane, this only gives credence to charges that she is incompetent. Crafting legal orders is a critical part of her job. And crafting legal orders means she ought to have a good understanding of the laws of this country. The so-called "typo" in the Absa report demonstrates quite the opposite.

This would not have been the first of her reports to be taken on review. But this is the first in which the competence of the public protector and her fitness to hold office are at issue.

Coming into the position, she already faced the pressure of comparisons with her predecessor Advocate Thuli Madonsela, whose legacy she spent the first few weeks in office trying to undermine.

Part of that effort was seen in her seeming reluctance to oppose President Jacob Zuma's review application of the State of Capture report wherein he was implicated.

It is therefore ironic that in the same week she made an about turn over her Absa report, Mkhwebane decided to take the fight to the president, defending her predecessor's remedial action for a commission of inquiry into allegations of state capture.

Realising the public relations disaster that her concession of error on SARB is, perhaps she was advised that she could redeem herself through opposing Zuma and showing herself in favour of action over state capture.

However, she has already damaged the stature of her office. The cynicism over her new-found zeal over state capture is as a result of her earlier conduct. She is responsible for the trust deficit that has developed between the office of the public protector and society.

The success of democracy by and large hinges on the attitude and behaviour of those who lead those democratic institutions. The expectation is that their conduct will be in the interests of the people because they owe it to the people who lend them their trust.

As long as public office bearers live up to that trust, they retain legitimacy. But as soon as they betray that trust they and the very institutions they lead lose credibility in the eyes of the people.

The trouble with Mkhwebane's image has always been from the uncertainty as what or who's interests she serves. And this latest set of inconsistencies deepens rather than clarifies that confusion.

Her stance over issues, knowledge of the law and understanding of her mandate only serves to diminish the glory of that proud institution.

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