Silencing a Public Protector

The Fascinating Story of Thula Madonsela and Being Undermined

By Rui Lopes

The Public Protector, in theory, was designed and created to strengthen the constitutional democracy within South Africa along with the other Constitutional Institutions established under Chapter 9 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.[1] In order to strengthen this constitutional democracy, it is imperative that the Public Protector be independent from any governmental branch or agency, as making it accountable to the exact organs it seeks to protect society from renders it ineffective and voiceless. What follows is an elaboration on the role of the Public Protector within a constitutionally democratic South Africa and whether its purpose and effectiveness has in essence fallen into redundancy by making it accountable to Parliament.

Thula Madonsela

Thula Madonsela

Establishing a constitutionally democratic Public Protector

The unfailing oppressiveness and secretiveness of the Apartheid government lead to a distrust of such a government and one which was consequently not open and accountable.[2] State organs could and often did act ultra vires, doing whatever they wished regardless of whether such powers were given to them, and would not need to be accountable for any such actions.[3]

However with the dawning of a constitutional democracy in 1994, the need to divide the once monopolised parliamentary power among all branches of government and the implementation of checks and balances ensuring that all branches of government became accountable towards one another became imperative in securing the ideal of a democratic nation once founded upon racial oppression and impunity.[4] With the implementation of the 1993 Interim Constitution, in terms of principle 29,  the office of the Public Protector was first established and by including it the Constitutional Principles, secured its existence within the final Constitution.[5]

The Public Protector was designed to assist in the transformation of an oppressive society into an open and democratic society, creating an accountable and credible government through the re-establishment and respect of the rule of law. No longer was government above the law nor could they do a they wished, rather the government was in theory, accountable to the people of the nation, echoing the entire theory of the social contract.[6] Consequently the office of the Public Protector was ideally to act as a check between the Executive and Legislative branches of government and to provide a link between the citizens and such branches.[7] 

The powers, functions and duties of the office of the Public Protector

The Public Protector is an institution established to investigate purported or supposed indecorous behavior of state affairs, whereby upon the decision to investigate such, which is at the discretion of the Public Protector, the Public Protector must report on such conduct and if applicable the taking of appropriate remedial action must occur.[8]

The Public Protector may not investigate judicial decisions, as this is the function of the Judicial Services Commission as well as owing to the fact that the Public Protector acts as a check between the Executive and Legislature.[9] The Public Protector may also not investigate human rights issues as such issues fall within the jurisdiction of the South African Human Rights Commission.[10] Once the Public Protector has an affirmative finding of misconduct, such a finding is then referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions.[11]

What follows is a determination of the ability of the Public Protector to accurately fulfill the role of its office. Such capability is determined by means of the independence which is afforded to it.

How independent is the Public Protector?

In order to hold the Executive and Legislative branches of government accountable, the Public Protector requires a “sufficient” amount of independence. This leads to predominant issues of what constitutes sufficient independence and the issue of over independence of such institutions which would then lead to an abuse of such independence.

Independence is a characteristic, which is established objectively in terms of whether a reasonable person would perceive such an institution as being independent.[12] Thus the impact that the Public Protectors perceived independence upon the reasonable person would in hindsight affect the Public Protector to fulfill the role of its office.

In order to accurately understand the independence which the Public Protector is afforded, its independence needs to be divided amongst five aspects namely a prima facie contradiction that exists between sections 181(2) and 181(5) of the Constitution, financial independence, administrative independence and finally, the independence of appointments and dismissals of the Public Protector.

Amid section 181(2) and 181(5) of the Constitution, there exists a prima facie conflict of these two provisions in the sense that section 181(2) holds Chapter 9 institutions to be independent and only subject to the Constitution whereas 181(5) holds such institutions accountable to the National Assembly.[13] This inconsistency was settled in Independent Electoral Commission v Langeberg Municipality [14] whereby the court held in accordance with section 239 such institutions are not governmental departments which the Cabinet may have stimulus over, rather they are independent from government.[15] Thus by holding such, the court made it clear that although the Public Protector is accountable to the National Assembly, it is not accountable to government nor is it afforded the same independence as the judiciary.[16] 

Two reasons exist at the outset for such accountability.[17] Firstly the Public Protector is said to be accountable to the National Assembly, as through representative democracy, the National Assembly represents the population of South Africa, their opinions and ideologies, and thus by making the Public Protector accountable to the National Assembly, it is in essence making the Public Protector accountable to the public.[18] 

Financial independence of the Public Protector was too dealt with in Independent Electoral Commission v Langeberg Municipality whereby the Constitutional Court affirmed such Chapter 9 institutions need a degree of financial independence but it is not to say that such institutions may set their own budget.[19] Rather Parliament as opposed to the Executive has the obligation to provide sufficiently reasonable funding in order for the Public Protector to fulfill its functions.

Appointments of the Public Protector are made by the President through a shortlisting of candidates, by the National Assembly, whom the Public nominated.[20] Therefore there exists a grave deficit in terms of public participation, as the public does not participate beyond the nominations stage.

It is too the National Assembly who may dismiss the Public Protector with a two-thirds majority vote. Such a majority is to ensure a simple majority does not unjustly dismiss the Public Protector.[21]

In theory, affording the Public Protector this amount of Constitutional independence at first glance, seems to allow it the ability to perform its functions. However, over the past couple of years, grave injustices have been committed towards this Chapter 9 institution that raises doubts as to whether the Public Protector can effectively fulfil its office, and whether the continued lack of the required independence renders the office of the Public Protector redundant.

The Constitution can be said to afford the Public Protector “sufficient” independence. However I posit that sufficient independence does not mean effective independence, and it is evident that the Public Protector as a chapter 9 institution is fundamental in the supporting of a democratic South Africa, representing a mechanism of holding the Executive and Legislature accountable, but such an office is not effective for as long as those whom the Public Protector seeks to hold accountable are the exact persons who have the power and ability to dismiss the Public Protector and furthermore have the ability to dictate the funding it therefore receives. With the recent cries for funding by the Public Protector, and the closing of its Mpumalanga office with others following suit, the question arises of whether the Public Protector has been reduced to a mere symbol of a ideology of democracy, unable to protect the public. Furthermore the manner in which the Nkandla Report was received in Parliament shows its inability to effectively exercise its powers and functions. Not being able to protect the public renders the Public Protector a useless feat.

I therefore posit that the theoretical independence afforded to the Public Protector is not enough to allow it to effectively fulfil its powers and duties.  Therefore all efforts must be made to afford the Public Protector such effective independence in order to fulfil its role and allow it to effectively protect the public.

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Footnotes

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[1] Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 section 181(1)(a).

[2] Pierre de Vos ‘Balancing Independence and Accountability: The Role of the Chapter 9 Institutions in South Africa’s Constitutional Democracy’ in M Danwood, M. Chirwa and Lia Nijzink ‘Accountable Government in Africa Chapter 10’ (2012) 160 at 160.

[3] Ibid; Iain Currie and Johan de Waal The New Constitutional & Administrative Law vol 1 (2013) 46 to 50.

[4] Public Protector v Mail and Guardian Ltd and Others 2011 (4) SA 422 (SCA) paras 5 & 6; C. Thornhill ‘Role of the Public Protector’ (2011) 2 Case Studies of Public Authority at 87.

[5] C, Murray ‘The Human Rights Commission et al: What is the Role of South Africa’s Chapter 9 Institutions?’ (2006) 2 PELJ 122 at 123 & 124; Ex Parte Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly In Re: Certification of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 1996 (4) SA 744 (CC) certification case 1996 (4) SA 744 para 161.

[6] Op cit note 2.

[7] Op cit note 2; supra note 4 para 19.

[8] Supra note 4 para 20; Newspaper clip; Public Protector Act 23 of 1994 section 6(4).

[9] Supra note 1 section 182(3).

[10] C, Murray ‘The Human Rights Commission et al: What is the Role of South Africa’s Chapter 9 Institutions?’ (2006) 2 PELJ 122 at 130.

[11] Thus demonstrating such institutional relationships of the Public Protector with such constitutional institutions.

[12] Van Rooyen and Others v S & Others 2002 (8) BCLR 810 (CC) paras 16 to 18.

[13] Supra note 1.

[14] 2001 (9) BCLR 883 (CC) paras 28 to 29.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Op cit note 2.

[17] It is important to note these to be my own deductions.

[18] Public Protector Act 23 of 1994 section 8(2)(a) and (b).

[19] Supra note 14 para 29; Op cit note 2

[20] Supra note 14; op cit note 2 168 to 170.

[21] Supra note 1 section 193(1) to (6) and 194(1) to (3).

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