Cash-strapped Public Protector dealing with 158 cases during lockdown

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane at a committee meeting in Parliament in October. (Jan Gerber/News24)
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane at a committee meeting in Parliament in October. (Jan Gerber/News24)

As the Office of the Public Protector faces a possibly debilitating budget cut, its incumbent, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, warned government officials not to see the relaxed procurement procedures under the national state of disaster as an "invitation for improper conduct".

This as Mkhwebane and her team presented their annual performance plan to the Portfolio Committee on Justice on Saturday.

Acting chief financial officer Tshiamo Senosi said the National Treasury had asked the Public Protector to cut 17% of its 2020/2021 budget, adding this would amount to about R57.6 million.

"This is a significant amount considering current budget constraints."

He said the Public Protector would not be able to implement its targets for the 2020/2021 financial year if the budget was cut, adding it was not in a position to absorb any budgets cuts and this had been communicated to the Treasury.

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The Public Protector instead requested additional funding for the next three financial years - R53 million for 2020/2021, R41 million for 2021/2022, and R50.5 million for 2022/2023.

Most of the requested funds are for filling critical positions in the office's staff - R52.7 million over the three years.

Resignations 

During the 2017/2018 and 2018/2019 financial years, 33 positions became vacant due to resignations. Due to budget constraints, the Public Protector could not fill these positions.

The request also includes more than R900 000 over the next two years for personal protective equipment to ward off Covid-19.

Mkhwebane said she "pleads" with the committee to help it with the budget.

She and her predecessor, Thuli Madonsela, have in recent years regularly raised the office's funding with Parliament. 

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Mkhwebane said the office had been designated an essential service in terms of the regulations governing the national state of disaster.

"Accordingly, we have been working remotely throughout the national lockdown, processing up to 158 new cases at the head office alone since the restrictions kicked in," she added.

These cases included those of South African citizens who were stranded in Egypt after having paid for flights back home due to the lockdown. There was also a case involving a number of South African students who found themselves in a similar predicament in Russia and needed repatriation.

Covid-19 cases

She said of the 158 cases, most dealt with its normal fare - cases of maladministration - and only six are directly Covid-19-related.

Mkhwebane said it would continue to work for as long as the lockdown lasts while observing strict safety practices for both staff and external stakeholders.

"We urge accounting officers across the board to be prudent when spending public funds and observe the dictates of Section 217 of the Constitution, the PFMA [Public Finance Management Act] and MFMA [Municipal Finance Management Act].

"The relaxation of procurement rules is not an invitation for improper conduct and maladministration," she added.

Meanwhile, the office, after implementing several safety precautions, will open for staff on Monday. Walk-ins from the public will still not be permitted. This is expected to be allowed under Level 2 of the lockdown regulations.

Thus far, no Public Protector officials have been infected with the virus.

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