OPINION | Public Protector's future depends on ravenous political trade-offs between 2 ANC factions

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Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane
Jan Gerber, News24

Sethulego Matebesi considers how the whippery of the ANC will respond to the possibility of voting for or against the removal of the Public Protector.

No South African will disagree that the most heavily criticised Chapter 9 institution head in recent times is Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.

The National Assembly endorsed advocate Mkhwebane as the fourth Public Protector with an overwhelming majority vote in 2016. Since then, a litany of adverse court rulings created a see-saw effect between those who support her and those who vehemently oppose her continuation as Public Protector.

This rift is likely to widen after an independent panel appointed by Parliament recently concluded that there is prima facie evidence of repeated incompetence and misconduct.

Of great concern is that the Public Protector failed in her attempts to obtain a court interdict to halt the inquiry into her fitness to hold office, pending her challenge to the rules the National Assembly adopted for the impeachment process.

It is still a long way before the Public Protector can be impeached. In this regard, it is not the aim of this contribution to rehash the events leading up to the preliminary inquiry's findings. The purpose here is to answer a question about how the ANC will respond to the Public Protector's impeachment.

READ | Ralph Mathekga: Mkhwebane inquiry: Where does the loyalty of the ANC caucus lie?

One can use two critical points as prisms to understand the likely scenario that will play out: the history of voting in Parliament and the political currency of the radical economic transformation (RET) faction in the ANC. For most of our history, voting in Parliament since the dawn of democracy has been, expectedly, along party lines. Even when deviation took place, this was extremely low. A safe bet is that this voting pattern will persist because of MPs' strong inclination to conformity.

What is less predictable is just how the whippery of the ANC will respond to the possibility of voting for or against the removal of the Public Protector. Elsewhere in the world, legislators are allowed to vote according to their conscience rather than their party's official line on contentious issues.

Currency of victimhood

Outside Parliament, the ANC's RET faction has been encouraged by the actions of the party's secretary-general and the former president. They are aptly using the political currency of victimhood to their advantage. The longer the court cases of Ace Magashule and Jacob Zuma drag on, the more political currency they gain in support from the ANC's RET faction.

With so many party members facing legal challenges, some of them have inevitably been drawn to conspiracies. The political behaviours this group fosters have been an antithesis of constitutional democracy. This has turned into a power conundrum for the ANC and has exploded over the past two years.

READ | Mpumelelo Mkhabela: Does the ANC view the countrys constitution as a 'mistake'?

Ironically, the Public Protector's future depends on the ravenous political trade-offs between the two factions within the ANC. Like a swinging pendulum, her support is tilted mainly by those who trust and distrust her. These differences are not part of the normal give-and-take dynamics of politics. It is an outcome of politicians whose future entirely depends on their fightback strategy. Why, then, will an ANC MP sympathetic to the cause of the RET forces vote for the removal of the Public Protector?

In hindsight, this seems to be an eminently sensible general analysis about the issue. However, this analysis may be highly untenable in the eyes of an ANC MP. That the motion to remove the Public Protector came from the DA further compounds this situation.

But what is absurd is the legal counsel of the Public Protector's argument that the DA has had a vendetta against her, and National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise's questionable attitude. This is the narrative that some ANC MPs will advance to vote against the DA's motion and not protect constitutional democracy in South Africa.

Meanwhile, the pendulum of trust and distrust in the Public Protector keeps on swinging. But if we think the only solution to deal with the myriad and severe challenges the Public Protector faced is her removal by Parliament, our wait for a solution will be much longer.

Professor Sethulego Matebesi is a senior lecturer and academic head of the Department of Sociology, University of the Free State.

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