The late chief justice Pius Langa, briefing the media, once averred: “I think judges should have a thick skin. We work in public, we give our judgments in public, and we give reasons for those judgments. We do expect people to scrutinise those judgments and to make their views known, but what we do insist on is that criticism of judges, judgments, should be fair, and should be reasonable, and should not impugn the integrity of judges.”
What the former chief justice was alluding to was the perceived ‘untouchable’ status of the judiciary despite the fact that it is driven by human beings; and human beings are inherently fallible and prone to lapses of judgement.
In a democratic society there should be no institution that escapes the critical glare of public scrutiny; and most importantly those institutions that have the power to influence public opinion such as the office of the public protector. Of late this office has been hogging national headlines with some people questioning its integrity; or rather that of its current incumbent.
The office of the public protector is an important chapter nine institution. It should be jealously protected. This protection includes having to demand nothing less than a display of the highest standard of probity and professionalism. Like all institutions that exercise power, they can only be held in check by, among other things, scrutiny and where necessary, ruthless critique of their actions.
Public office gives one power, privilege and authority. In the exercise of such power, one’s actions must be beyond reproach. Where there are instances of lapses of judgement, such as when the public protector attended a political gathering, one should with equanimity; accept the consequential backlash.
The media has; wrongfully so; sought to bequeath the public protector a halo. People should not be cowed to roll in fealty at the very mention of the public protector’s name. Philosophical/ideological orientation might influence how the public protector filters evidence and arrives at conclusions.
Misgivings about conclusions and processes should not necessarily translate to mean that the office is being delegitimised.
Freedom of expression applies even in instances that do not serve our conveniences. If the judges who are the final arbiters of constitutional disputes are not immune to, and invite, scrutiny of their judgments, then no institution should expect to be treated differently.
It is the office of the public protector that is sacrosanct; not the incumbent.