Mkhwebane makes her mark

2016-10-23 00:00
Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Picture: Leon Sadiki

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The new Public Protector made it clear this week that there is a new sheriff in town, and that she’s here to claim her space.

Standing tall in her red stilettos and matching two-piece power suit, Busisiwe Mkhwebane said that her predecessor, Thuli Madonsela, had run her race and that now she should be given the opportunity to run hers.

This is not Mkhwebane’s first stint in that office.

She worked there as a senior investigator and, later, as acting provincial representative in the Gauteng arm of the Office of the Public Protector.

This week, Mkhwebane was inundated with requests for interviews from journalists, itching to know what her first day in office has been like. But on the day that one-on-one interviews had been scheduled, she changed tack.

“No, I cannot take all of you. I can only see him [pointing to one reporter] because he has sent questions,” she said to startled journalists in the waiting room.

Mkhwebane is a woman in command; not even her media team could do anything at this point but follow her instruction.

She has had a packed schedule since Monday.

This included travelling to Cape Town to present the annual report on Thursday and returning to Johannesburg to file a responding affidavit on the state capture report, while also making time for her first media briefing

Perhaps the one thing she has in common with Madonsela is the fact that both have been accused of being spies. Mkhwebane has shrugged off the claims, demanding proof.

She began Monday, her first day in her new post, meeting staff and assessing her priorities.

At her maiden press briefing on Thursday, she wasted no time in sharing some of her observations, saying she had noticed low staff morale.

This, and other comments, raised eyebrows as Mkhwebane announced sweeping changes she would effect. These included:

- Canning the acceptance of donor funding because of risks associated with it;

- Changing the way in which investigation reports were titled to avoid causing tension with the state or respondents;

- Doing away with the use of consultants for investigative work, and opting instead to build capacity within her office to include expertise such as forensics – or outsourcing work to government and public institutions, as provided for in the Public Protector Act;

- Setting up a task team to focus on the backlog of cases; and

- Placing a moratorium on international travel, especially for benchmarking purposes.

The other contentious issue which Mkhwebane said she would tackle related to a R750 000 unpaid bill – including interest – for repairs, after Madonsela’s son crashed a state-owned vehicle in 2012.

While Madonsela this week appeared puzzled about the unearthing of a case which she had deemed finalised, Mkhwebane insisted the matter was still on the table.

Mkhwebane (46) has met with the chief financial officer to try to “settle the matter” and said she would inform Madonsela about her intentions to take the matter forward.

This generated a flurry of criticism from Madonsela’s admirers, who have accused Mkhwebane of trying to wipe out her predecessor’s legacy and, worse, besmirch her reputation.

Mkhwebane, who hails from Bethal in Mpumalanga, retaliated by saying it was unfair for people to compare her to her predecessor, who not only left big shoes to fill but also made enemies in the ANC-led government through her damning findings against officials, including President Jacob Zuma.

Asked what she thought about people pitting her against Madonsela, she flashed a smile and said:

“It is unfair to do so. Advocate Madonsela has mentioned several times that she is Thuli Madonsela and I am Busisiwe Mkhwebane. She has run her race. I will do my part, so we can be supported in our [respective] races. She had her own approach; I have my own approach.”

This as she sat next to her deputy Kevin Malunga, an unsuccessful contender for the post she now occupies.

“South Africans and the media may have their own views [regarding her and her predecessor],” she added.

“But to set the record straight, we are not in competition. We are serving our people and making sure that our democracy is enjoyed by all who live in it.”

Defending her stance on the donor funding issue, Mkhwebane said all she did was read from the annual report which Madonsela had been expected to present to Parliament’s portfolio committee on justice, before it cancelled that meeting unexpectedly.

Mkhwebane said more funding was received from GIZ, a German donor agency, adding that outside funding opened the office to risk as aid agencies often had an agenda and their money came with certain conditions.

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