Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane may have crossed the line when she instructed Parliament to amend the Constitution and change the mandate of the Reserve Bank, but ANC MPs applauded her for initiating an important debate on how the country could fight poverty.
Mkhwebane’s report into allegations of maladministration, corruption, misappropriation of public funds and the failure by the government to recover public funds from Absa bank, published in June, became a talking point when her office appeared before Parliament’s justice committee yesterday to account for the 2016/17 financial year.
While Mkhwebane has increased the number of finalised cases, reduced case backlog, reached out to hundreds of far-flung communities, the debate during yesterday’s parliamentary meeting centred around the controversial report – especially her “instruction” to the parliamentary committee to initiate a process that will result in the amendment of the Constitution.
MPs questioned Mkhwebane about the legal advice she received in drafting the report, from whom she received it, her understanding of the law, especially as an advocate, and on the powers of her office.
Opposition MPs were more scathing with at least one, Economic Freedom Fighters’ Sam Matiase, suggesting that it would be better if she resigned to protect the image of the institution.
Matiase charged that Mkhwebane had bungled a crucial case from which the state could have recouped a lot of money that could have been used to uplift the poor.
“All you should do is resign,” he said to objections from ANC MPs.
“We were deeply shocked and disappointed when we learnt of the remedial action proposed in the Absa-Reserve Bank matter, particularly that relating to this committee where we were basically instructed to amend the Constitution with certain wordings,” said Steve Swart of the African Christian Democratic Party.
“My concern is what type of legal advice would you have received to bring that kind of remedial action instructing the chair of this committee and Parliament to amend the Constitution as you saw fit,” Swart added, describing Mkhwebane’s remedial action as ill-advised.
Advocate Glynnis Breytenbach from the Democratic Alliance followed in the same vein: “Who provided you with such disastrous legal advice? And as an advocate, why did you follow such advice?”
But ANC MPs had Mkhwebane’s back. They also heaped praise upon her.
“Your sin is that sometimes you do, in certain cases, touch the nerve of the monopoly capital, and according to them, you must be pushed out,” ANC MP Loyiso Mpumlwana said.
“The work that you have done … honestly and objectively, this is a distinction,” he added.
Mpumlwana is one of the ANC MPs who went behind the party’s back to request the Public Protector to extend her state capture investigation to other institutions including the Treasury.
Bongani Bongo, another ANC MP, urged Mkhwebane not to be deterred by the criticism of her remedial action regarding the Reserve Bank, saying this was an issue that still needed to be pursued because South Africans’ eyes were opened by what Mkhwebane had written about the role of the Reserve Bank and on issues of ownership.
“I think it’s a political matter that must still be pursued,” he said.
The justice committee’s acting chairperson, Charlotte Pilane-Majake, agreed with Bongo.
“Indeed you burnt your fingers in terms of overstepping your mandate by instructing Parliament to make an amendment, but that doesn’t take away the importance of the content of the report because the report was looking at how we can fight poverty as South Africans. It was looking at instruments to fight poverty,” she said.
Mkhwebane explained that it was never her intention to be instructive or to instruct Parliament to amend the Constitution but to recommend that “this needs to be looked into”.
Mkhwebane had later withdrawn the controversial remedial action and did not oppose it when the Reserve Bank challenged it in court.
Another matter that raised temperatures in the meeting was the Public Protector’s catering and travel expenditure which skyrocketed between the 2015/16 and 2016/17 financial years.
The catering expenditure had jumped from R424 299 in 2015/16 to a whopping R1.35 million in the financial year under review.
The institution’s travel expenditure had also skyrocketed from R3 million in 2015/16 for domestic travel and subsistence to R7.3 million, while international travel jumped from R895 000 to R2.1 million in 2016/17.
Mkhwebane explained that a lot of the expenditure had been incurred by the time she took office.
She also explained that the office utilised holidays to promote access to the office and in those roadshows, it provided catering.
She told MPs that she had not travelled overseas since her appointment and the travelling costs were incurred by her predecessor, Thuli Madonsela.
During her term, Madonsela was constantly criticised by ANC MPs for overseas trips including those she took to accept international awards.