Busi Mkhwebane's standoff with Pravin Gordhan another political storm

06 June 2019 - 07:21
By , nompumelelo runji AND Nompumelelo Runji

The public protector is once again at the centre of a political standoff.

Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane has been accused by her detractors of playing politics and attempting to undermine the clean-up operation being undertaken by public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan.

Whether or not there is any veracity to this claim, Mkhwebane and any other individual to take on the office of public protector will forever be caught in a political storm.

Mkhwebane came into the office with some raising concerns about her ability to carry out her duties professionally and objectively.

The DA opposed Mkhwebane's nomination and appointment, citing her previous association with the State Security Agency, among others. The ANC and the EFF came to her defence.

The debate over her fitness to lead this powerful chapter nine institution has been raging on ever since, with her work coming under greater scrutiny than that of her predecessor Thuli Madonsela.

Recent high court findings setting aside her Absa and Vrede dairy farm reports have given more ammunition to the DA, which is still gunning for her removal.

That said, there is no denying that one of the legacies of former president Jacob Zuma years is the politicisation of the public protector.

Zuma's battle against Madonsela and his dismissal of her remedial action on Nkandla spending as mere recommendations thrust that office into the political fray. It was Madonsela's report that gave birth to "pay back the money".

And it was on the back of her report that the Constitutional Court pronounced Zuma a constitutional delinquent who failed to uphold his oath of office. That ruling also confirmed the inviolability of the public protector's remedial actions, which can only be invalidated by court review.

The work of the public protector invariably pits her against the most powerful in our society. Her job is to investigate the alleged abuse of power by politicians at any and every level of state.

Politicians can therefore opportunistically get on the bandwagon of her investigations and findings when these implicate their opponents, and join the chorus of her detractors when her findings cut into them.

It is from this perspective that the new battle over the public protector's findings against Gordhan should be viewed. She and her supporters claim that she is doing her job and holding the minister to account.

If we hold to the tenet that nobody is above the law, we will have to accept that despite his reputation for busting corruption and standing up against the capture of the state in the previous administration, Mkhwebane is correct to subject Gordhan to investigation where one is warranted.

It should, however, come as no surprise that her alleged targeting of Gordhan should lead to a backlash.

The EFF has lambasted those in civil society who have come to Gordhan's defence. After he had reappointed Gordhan minister, EFF leader Julius Malema accused President Cyril Ramaphosa of being no different to Zuma in undermining the powers of the public protector.

Gordhan retaliated saying the public protector should get good legal advice because he is no constitutional delinquent as he helped draft the constitution.

Whereas during Zuma's tenure, civil society stood with the public protector, today prominent civil society voices including the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Freedom Under Law and Outa are calling for Mkhwebane's removal. The EFF, which has flip-flopped on Mkhwebane, is now her biggest defender. This should come as no surprise.

Mkhwebane's finding that Gordhan violated the constitution in his tenure as Sars commissioner, with his approval of early pension for then deputy Ivan Pillay, is as a result of a complaint that the EFF laid.

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