Ralph Mathekga

Public Protector in the path of a perfect storm brewing in Parliament

2019-06-25 07:23
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Picture: Leon Sadiki/City Press

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Picture: Leon Sadiki/City Press

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Mkhwebane's decisions to probe Ramaphosa campaign donations will fuel calls for an inquiry into her fitness to hold office. Such an inquiry would have to be undertaken by a parliamentary committee, writes Ralph Mathekga.

What was once a petty factional battle in the governing African National Congress (ANC) driven by personality cults has become intensified policy differences increasingly spreading towards state institutions.

Having taken the form of pro and anti-Zuma factions, warring groupings in the ANC have escalated their factional tensions so that it now reaches across key state institutions such as Parliament and Cabinet.

The fight among senior ANC members has also spread towards a Chapter 9 institution: the office of the Public Protector. A perception exists in South Africa that the incumbent Public Protector, Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane "is using her office as a strategic centre of resistance" by allies of former president Jacob Zuma who are pushing back against President Cyril Ramaphosa's perceived move to take over the ANC.

It is quite worrying that the most discernible shift in terms of institutional and political realignment in the country since the May 8 election has been the institutionalisation of ANC factions within state institutions.

The first indication of this was seen with Ramaphosa's appointment of Cabinet; where the president had to confront a faction that was just interested in having representation in Cabinet. There were delays before Ramaphosa announced his Cabinet due to lobbying by the opposing faction to have its lieutenants included.  

Reports indicate that the ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is leading the anti-Ramaphosa grouping. Ramaphosa's Cabinet picks screamed a lonely president who needs friends. Several individuals who made it in show that the president was scraping the bottom of the barrel to scoop out whatever friendships he could still find in the ANC. Too many compromises were extracted from Ramaphosa in the Cabinet appointments, including the retention of some of the Nkandla apologists who had their shot in spinning the controversial construction at Zuma's private residence. 

The result is that Ramaphosa's Cabinet will be a meeting place for those who cannot stand each other. There are such policy differences among Cabinet members that the whole project would most likely look like the biblical Tower of Babel.

After the compromises were made between factions on Cabinet positions, the next stop was parliamentary committee chairs. I heard someone saying that these positions do not matter much, because power lies with Cabinet. This statement is a half-truth.

The only time that it does not matter who oversees parliamentary committees is when the head of the executive is fully in charge of the party. In that way, Parliament will follow directive from the head of the party who would also be the head of the executive.

But as things currently stand, the president is not fully in control of the party. He is struggling to retain full control of the ANC. If he fails to ensure that his allies take control of key portfolio committees in Parliament, it would certainly affect the process of policy implementation. This means that the policy differences that exist within the ANC will also be aired in the work of parliamentary committees.

Parliamentary committees are the engine of policy formulation; they process policies into law that is to be implemented. The work of committees can alter policy, or simply delay its finalisation and ultimately its implementation. If I chair a parliamentary committee and my committee must process a policy I do not favour, there is an option to orchestrate endless public consultations on the policy for the next five years until everyone gives up.

Therefore, the only parliamentary committees President Ramaphosa can ignore are the ones manned by his allies. Else, that would be a gross miscalculation. An example of this might be on the cards with the looming showdown between Ramaphosa and the Public Protector.

The Public Protector's decisions to enthusiastically probe Ramaphosa's ANC presidential campaign have positioned the office of the Public Protector perfectly in the path of the perfect storm gathering in Parliament on one hand, and between Parliament and the executive.

Mkhwebane's decisions to probe Ramaphosa campaign donations will fuel calls for an inquiry into her fitness to hold office. Such an inquiry would have to be undertaken by a parliamentary committee. Clearly, the work of the parliamentary committee in this regard will be interpreted in line with the perceived or real dominant faction in that committee. One way or another, it all comes down to a faction of the ANC.

In all this, the ANC as an organisation suffers. When it comes to communicating the party position in the battle that is underway, the ANC's communication engine grinds to a halt. This is because it is hijacked by any faction that is prepared to pull the trigger first and unleash its version of events using the party communication machine.

When it's all over, a faction would have won the battle at a cost. This may affect the integrity of some of the institutions because factions thrive on attacking state institutions whenever it is convenient. This holds even for good factions because a good faction is still a faction in essence.

- Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn.

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