A proxy battle

2020-02-05 06:00

THE looming parliamentary review of advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s fitness to hold office as the public protector will be the first major test of the ANC caucus in Parliament since the inauguration of the sixth Parliament after the elections last year.

After the decision was made by the speaker of the National Assembly to start the parliamentary inquiry into Mkhwebane, the future of the controversial public protector now lies in the hands of the ANC caucus in Parliament.

Mkhwebane has been a nuisance to President Cyril Ramaphosa and his key ally Pravin Gordhan. Both have been reproached by Mkhwebane in her reports.

A lot can be said about whether Mkhwebane deserves all that is coming her way regarding her fitness to hold office. Some are convinced that Mkhwebane deserves the boot, having issued reports that are said to be sub-par and lacking in substance.

But the Mkhwebane matter has significance beyond the substantive question as to whether she should be removed.

The issue will give a clear indication of how the ANC caucus in Parliament is positioned in relation to the executive, thus Cabinet.

Some within the ANC-led executive branch of government want to see Mkhwebane fired. But there are also those within the ANC who want to protect Mkhwebane against what they see as a lynch mob.

Ramaphosa and his allies have been accused repeatedly of staging a political campaign to remove Mkhwebane from office because she is considered a Jacob Zuma stooge whose purpose is to undermine the new dawn. Those who stand with Mkhwebane see themselves as standing against a system that is set on removing the inconvenient truth from the public.

When it comes to what should happen to Mkhwebane, the ANC is sharply divided so it is not clear which direction the party caucus in Parliament will move as she has both admirers and detractors there and the party caucus is so unpredictable that there is no guarantee that it will vote to remove Mkhwebane.

This is not about whether Mkhwebane is wrong or right; but rather about proxy battles that are under way within the ANC.

The political atmosphere within the ANC, whereby factionalism has been institutionalised in state institutions, including Parliament and the party caucus, might embarrass the party in the process of removing Mkhwebane.

It would be embarrassing and tragic if the ANC caucus in Parliament adopted a defiant position regarding Mkhwebane. Clearly the head of the executive, Ramaphosa, would want Mkhwebane to be removed for the obvious reason that she has pushed the president into a corner on the CR17 campaign finance matter. If the ANC caucus in Parliament decides not to remove Mkhwebane, that would be interpreted as an act of defiance against Ramaphosa and his allies.

If Mkhwebane survives the process, she will come out with guns blazing to finish off the work she started. If she is removed, the president will gain a reprieve, but that would mean that the party caucus would have acceded to the criticisms against Mkhwebane.

The question is whether the ANC caucus will take instructions from Luthuli House or will it read the political wind as it blows from the Union Buildings where the president sits. The instructions from Luthuli House would certainly be that the ANC caucus in Parliament show restraint with Mkhwebane, while the Union Buildings would prefer her out of office as soon as yesterday.

The opposition parties also differ on what should be done about Mkhwebane.

The EFF would prefer to shower Mkhwebane with awards for bravery for having taken on the big boys in her reports. The DA, on the other hand, would prefer Mkhwebane be removed and kept far away from the Office of the Public Protector.

One way or another, the way in which the ANC caucus deals with the matter will give a clear indication as to what is possible under Ramaphosa’s administration. If efforts to remove Mkhwebane through Parliament fail because the ANC caucus is not in on the plan, that would be more tragic in the sense that the ANC caucus in Parliament would only have emboldened Mkhwebane.

In that way, the caucus would have drawn the line in the sand for the president and his executive, which would undermine Ramaphosa’s presidency in a way that is worse than just leaving Mkhwebane alone and not dragging her to Parliament.

Given how unpredictable the ANC caucus in Parliament is, the effort to remove Mkhwebane from office through a parliamentary process is a very risky one-shot manoeuvre whereby one cannot afford to miss.

• Dr Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa’s Turn.

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