It seems the Office of the Public Protector does exist... but does it function as it should?

2019-04-26 10:18

About two months ago, MyNews24 published an article I wrote about my adopted son, the Department of Basic Education and the Office of the Public Protector. The issue(s) revolved around my son’s sexual harassment at a government school, the poor investigation by the DBE and the Office of the Public Protector. 

The spokesperson of the Office of the Public Protector contacted me within 24 hours of the publication of the article. Two working days later, I received an official response from the Office of the Public Protector telling me that my request for a review was accepted and a new investigator had been appointed, who would contact me soon. I also noted that Advocate Mkhwebane was on News24 in the ensuing days, threatening to name and shame state entities that ignored her remedial actions, commenting on the ‘thousands’ of ordinary people who relied on the Public Protector to mete out justice when state entities treat them unfairly.

Was it possible that one little article in MyNews24 was actually making a difference? It certainly seemed so two months ago. From my point of view as a lay person, three and a half years after the initial contact, five years after the event itself, I had finally been told that the Office of the Public Protector probably messed up in dealing with the matter that I raised, and it/they are now getting into gear to do something about the mess up. Good enough, but if I were less stubborn and dogged, wouldn’t everything have been swept under a carpet? 

I noted an article in News24 from City Press editor Mondli Makhanya about the extreme danger of allowing a culture of no accountability; I completely concur with the sentiments he expressed and I would add/stress that the accountability needs to be timeous. 

Consider Adriaan Basson and his revelations about BOSASA ten years ago. How much damage was done in the interim? What about the tens of thousands of learners who have experienced sexual harassment and abuse at schools while government institutions stood by and did nothing? Remember the article I referred to in The Witness that numbered more than 9 000 girls of school-going age in KZN and that’s just one year in one province… 

The Department of Basic Education and others react when a case becomes ‘high profile’, but what of the lesser profile cases that get little or no media attention?  Don’t talk to me about intervention and psychological counselling – I have seen first-hand what that means, and quite frankly, it doesn’t mean much.

I have always suspected that one of the reasons the Office of the Public Protector unceremoniously ‘closed’ the matter in February 2016 was that I had continuously requested a ‘timeline’ detailing what would happen when. You know what I mean: this will happen within 28 days, that will happen within 14 days, and so on. At one stage I was told that the Office of the Public Protector could subpoena the DBE official if no final report was made before a date in February 2016, but that was the only time I received any sort of ‘timeline’. 

The general impression I had – and still have – is that the whole thing is a minor matter that investigators are too busy to take too seriously.

I wonder how many children have been subjected to sexual harassment in government schools across the country in the last two months? 100? 500? 5 000? No one knows because no one really cares, and those who do are simply not organized enough to make a difference…yet.

It is easy to ignore the problem. It is a bit shocking though, when a Chapter Nine institution apparently tries to ignore the problem – I think of the numerous emails I sent to different officials that were never answered. 

Two months on I still have not been contacted by the new investigator appointed to deal with the matter, and yes, I have sent an email to that person enquiring about what is to happen next. 

It is easy to say that South Africa has more pressing problems right now. We certainly have more high-profile problems, but we are talking about children here, which means we are talking about the health and mental state of the next generation.

At the moment then, I have to say that the Office of the Public Protector probably does exist, but it doesn’t work very hard for the ordinary person. A lack of funding, a lack of capacity? Whatever the reason, said office has not done what it was purportedly set up to do in my case – I have a letter that admits as much. Nor does it appear to have any sense of urgency in resolving its own mistakes, and so I settle back into waiting mode, waiting patiently but never giving up. 

Eventually, some person or organisation with serious clout will take up this issue and things will start to happen; until then I will keep plugging away, doing my best to make sure that the serious, serious issue of sexual predator educators horribly active in our government schools is not forgotten.

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