Not many South Africans knew the name Busisiwe Mkhwebane before this week, or before the nominations for Public Protector and the interviews for the 15 people on the shortlist were conducted live on television.
But all that is about to change, as Advocate Mkhwebane was chosen this week as their favoured candidate by the ad hoc parliamentary committee tasked with finding a successor to Thuli Madonsela, whose seven-year term comes to an end in October.
One can only hope that Mkhwebane will dominate the headlines over the next few years – as Madonsela did – for all the right reasons. The job of Public Protector can be a lonely one and there are always pressures, political and otherwise, to do one’s work in a certain way. Sometimes the pressure is overt, most time it is subtler. Madonsela’s life was even threatened at times.
But the credibility of the Public Protector’s office is important, more important than the individual who occupies the most senior seat in the organisation.
I attended the Top Women awards function in Johannesburg last week where Madonsela received a lifetime achiever award and she spoke about how accepted the award on behalf of all of her staff. She said that, while her name appears on the reports her office issues, it is the result of the work of many people in her office.
Mkhwebane will go into this job with concerns about her close links to President Jacob Zuma, a concern which has not been substantiated by any of her critics.
I don’t believe it is a legitimate concern because we have in recent times had a few examples where people alleged to have been close to the President, or to have had strong ruling party leanings, have shown their independence and professionalism.
One such example is Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, who was viewed very sceptically when he was appointed in September 2011. Since then he has shown that he has more loyalty to the senior position he holds in the judiciary than to any individual or political party.
He even delivered the damning judgment in March where he confirmed the powers of the Public Protector and ordered the President to “pay back the money”.
There was also concerns about Mogoeng’s strong Christian religious beliefs and that these could influence his judgments. So far, he has shown that he is guided only by the Constitution and not by loyalty to persons or to religious affiliation.
Another example is the chairman of the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), Glen Mashinini, who defied his critics by delivering probably the most important election of post-apartheid South Africa so far – the municipal elections of 3 August in which the ANC lost significant support.
There were concerns about whether Mashinini, who was also alleged to be close to Zuma because he previously worked as an adviser to the President, would be able to preside over impartial, free and fair elections. The strong showing by the opposition in the municipal elections seem to have waylaid those fears. One wonders if this would have been the case if the opposition did not do so well.
What the above examples show is that there are people who are able to rise above personal and political allegiances and do justice to the office to which they have been appointed. This is what is expected in a democracy. One should judge people based on their professionalism, skills and experience, and not on their political allegiances.
Opposition leaders who criticise the ANC for “cadre deployment” conveniently choose to overlook these and other examples. They choose to focus on the cases where people will political connections have not been able to perform their duties. This is right but we also need to acknowledge the instances where “cadre deployment” has benefited society.
In a country like South Africa, where we have a divided history, we all carry political and social baggage. We all have to perform our duties despite this baggage.
It is not at the same level, but as a journalist who had a struggle background, there are many people who doubt whether someone like myself can ever be objective. But throughout my career, my commitment to journalism has always outweighed my commitment to people or politics. I have often written critical pieces about friends who have done wrong, even when it pained me to do so.
It is possible to focus on the job at hand and not allow one’s baggage to interfere.
After all, even Thuli Madonsela came from an ANC background and there were concerns at the time of her appointment about whether she would be able to perform her duties objectively. She showed that she was able to do so and inspired many with her bravery as she went up against the most powerful people in our society.
If Mkhwebane is accepted by parliament and becomes our next Public Protector, which seems a formality, then she deserves all our support as she navigates a very tricky road of keeping politicians to account. Civil society will have to be vigilant and keep her to account.
We have to thank Madonsela for raising the profile of the Public Protector over the past seven years. Let’s hope that the office will grow even stronger under the next incumbent.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 27 August 2016)