Drop obsession with Madonsela

Mondli Makhanya, City Press editor in chief
Mondli Makhanya, City Press editor in chief

If there is one thing that can be said about new Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, two months into her tenure, it is that South Africa is battling to read her.

She has the nation arguing about who she really is, where she stands and what kind of Public Protector she will be in the long run. A South African public that either loved or hated Thuli Madonsela wants to make up its mind about her successor, but is being frustrated by the confused signals she is sending out.

During interviews by Parliament’s ad hoc committee, she hardly put a foot wrong. She charmed MPs across party lines and, by the time the process was over, she was the only person with whom they could find common ground.

The only objector was the DA, which raised questions about her possible past links with the state’s intelligence agencies. Mkhwebane has outrightly rejected this, and other parties felt the DA was being a spoilsport. Although she did not exactly shoot the lights out and tower above other candidates, interested parties inside and outside Parliament just wanted to stop the ANC’s preferred candidate, the irascible Siraj Desai, from stepping into the position. Consensus was that this would have been a huge step backwards.

So Mkhwebane seemed an uncontroversial choice who would grow into the position. She was never going to be a Madonsela, and nobody was really expecting the next Public Protector to be a replica of the unflappable woman with the monotone voice. All she had to do was build on the work that Madonsela and her team had done in making the institution live up to its name.

The former home affairs official was inheriting a strong set of individuals who did not roll over for the strong-headed Madonsela, but rather helped mould the institution by often locking horns with her.

But then Mkhwebane decided to go out of her way to define herself as “not Thuli”. Within her first few days in office, she was making pronouncements about low staff morale and was making judgmental statements on Madonsela’s legacy. From pronouncements to actions, she seems to be obsessing about showing the world that she is a different kind of sheriff.

Already premature aspersions are being cast on her, and one could argue unfairly so. She is being portrayed as someone who was planted by the powers that be to undo Madonsela’s work by tuning the office into a State Protector. A growing number of voices are now asking whether the DA was on to something after all.

Someone should tell her that this gig is not about her – it is about an institution that has become a pivotal pillar of this democracy, without which we would be in a much worse state than we currently are. She should retrace the steps that the Public Protector’s office has taken back to the days of Selby Baqwa, the first person to occupy her chair.

Baqwa was a respected advocate who was tapped by Nelson Mandela to establish the office in 1995. With a staff that could be counted on the fingers of two human hands and an office slightly larger than a Somali spaza shop, he began to tackle difficult complaints against a democratic government that was in its honeymoon phase and which enjoyed massive legitimacy. Initially, he trod carefully so as not to alienate, but he still managed to hit hard. His role in whitewashing the Sarafina! scandal and “managing” the arms deal multiagency investigation are blotches on his record. But those are dwarfed by his achievements in constructing the institution and giving it a profile.

By the time Baqwa left office in 2002, he had earned the wrath of the ANC by taking on some of the party’s big guns. The office of the Public Protector had carved out its place in the architecture of our constitutional order.

His successor had to build on this and take the work and reputation of the office to a higher place. But Lawrence Mushwana had other ideas. Plucked from the ANC’s parliamentary benches, he saw his new job as no different from his days in the party caucus, where he marched to the orders of the chief whip and the deployment committee. In his seven years in office, he almost entirely undid Baqwa’s work.

Madonsela should have inherited a purring machine in 2009, but she had to recondition the engine and give the car a good panel-beating. Mushwana is spoken of with much derision, in spite of his having somewhat redeemed himself at the SA Human Rights Commission.

Mkhwebane is inheriting an institution that is in a good place. South Africans trust the Public Protector’s office. The reason they trust it to tackle their day-to-day tussles with the state – some of which may seem trivial to those who only concern themselves with the macro picture – is because it has displayed fearlessness in the face of power. Many South Africans may have fallen in love with Madonsela’s persona, but, in the main, it was her work that they loved.

What Mkhwebane needs to accept is that even though Madonsela has moved on, she was one of those larger-than-life leaders who will never leave the public consciousness. She will still be stopped for selfies at supermarkets and hit headlines when she gives public speeches. That’s okay.

Mkhwebane will be compared with her from time to time, but she must just get on with her job of protecting the public and not obsess about living in Madonsela’s shadow. Legacy – if she is at all interested in such – will follow.

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