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Public protector staff member asks parliament to investigate Mkhwebane

A staff member at the office of public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane has alleged employees have been intimidated and bullied.
A staff member at the office of public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane has alleged employees have been intimidated and bullied.
Image: Simphiwe Nkwali

Calls for public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane to leave office are intensifying as her own staff members come out with allegations about bullying, intimidation and low staff morale under her leadership.

Calls for Mkhwebane's removal from office come after the DA wrote to National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise as a first move to have parliament remove her.

Mkhwebane has come under increased pressure after she released a report saying that President Cyril Ramaphosa should take action against public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan because Gordhan approved early retirement for former Sars commissioner Ivan Pillay.

Gordhan has taken the report on review but it was used by his opponents as a tool to pressure Ramaphosa not to reappoint him.

On Monday, Radio 702 spoke to Sphelo Samuel, an investigator at the Free State office of the public protector who has submitted an affidavit to parliament in which he asks for an investigation into how Mkhwebane runs her office.

In his affidavit, Samuel has asked parliament to intervene and investigate Mkhwebane’s conduct and look into the “financial wastage” of state funds and her “reckless” litigation.

Speaking to radio presenter Bongani Bingwa, Samuel claimed Mkhwebane’s litigation was focused on her personal agenda and not on matters that enhance the jurisprudence of the office of the public protector.

Samuel is also calling for parliament to investigate low staff morale at the public protector’s office.

“There is reigning atmosphere of fear and intimidation. We are not able to do our jobs.”

According to Samuel, “critical” information relating to the Estina dairy farm investigation was ignored.

“The investigation was concluded in 2014. I had to sign it off to the head office. The draft  the public protector released and the one we sent had material differences,” Samuel alleged.

He said the information that was “ignored” related to ANC secretary-general and former Free State premier Ace Magashule and ANC MP Mosebenzi Zwane.

Samuel said he submitted the affidavit to parliament because he and his colleagues felt Mkhwebane was being protected by the committee to which they lodged their complaints, within the office of the public protector.

He said he was encouraging his colleagues to come forward.

“I trust the speaker for protecting us around the complaint, and there’s more that my colleagues will be coming up with,” said Samuel.

The Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution's executive secretary, Lawson Naidoo, said the allegations Samuel had made against Mkhwebane were serious and showed the “dysfunction” that had set in at the office of the public protector.

“We believe the affidavit should be referred by the speaker to an independent panel she’s about to set up so the allegations contained in the letter can be investigated as part of the overall investigation into advocate Mkhwebane’s fitness to hold office,” Naidoo said.

In a statement issued by her office, Mkwebane said she had noted  a “worrying” trend among certain senior staff members against whom disciplinary action was either being taken or contemplated to depose to affidavits in which they allege misconduct against her, and send affidavits to parliament in an “apparent” attempt to influence the process of her removal from office.

“At this stage advocate Mkhwebane has not ruled out the possibility that these staff members are working with external parties who have been pushing for her impeachment on the premise that 'disclosures' from within will carry more weight than the claims made by outsiders. 

“She finds it strange that the staff members in question, who allege misconduct in the investigations they were involved in, kept quiet for years, only to start talking when disciplinary action was being taken or contemplated against them for unrelated matters. The public protector believes the purported disclosures are, therefore, in bad faith,” said Oupa Segalwe, Mkhwebane’s spokesperson.

He said it was strange that Samuel had written the affidavit only when action was being contemplated against him after he was found guilty of assaulting a complainant who had gone to the public protector for help.

According to Segalwe, Samuel had contravened the public protector media policy by leaking his affidavit and conducting interviews with the media.

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