A new “good governance and integrity unit” set up in the public protector’s office to investigate corrupt state officials and with the power to stop irregular tenders is the root cause of tension between her office and the government, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said this week.
Interviewed in Pretoria at the launch of her national road show this week, Madonsela also said that last week’s attempt to discredit her by leaking false information that she faced arrest for graft had strengthened her resolve to root out corruption.
“The good governance unit creates the tension because it focuses on who did what or failed to do what,” said Madonsela. “Our office doesn’t just investigate, it demands remedial action. More than anything else, that is what has caused the tension.”
Madonsela said that when she took office the expectation was that she would stick to investigating and writing reports. “That means that people keep their tenders and they’re not frustrated. But when the protector’s office demands that tender processes are stopped until investigations are completed and tells people there’ll be consequences, that’s when the real problems start.”
Madonsela was due to update the media on her investigations — including the police headquarters leasing scandal involving national commissioner Bheki Cele — when Independent Newspapers reported that her arrest was imminent.
The claims evaporated when the presidency and the ministries of police and justice came forward to support her.
Her office has brought forward an eight-week stakeholder road show scheduled to start later this month.
At the launch of the road show, in which she will explain her mandate to the state, political parties, civil society and the public, Madonsela said government misunderstood her role. “When I first started engaging government I got the sense that people thought we were only an ombudsman. I don’t think there had been enough education around the public protector’s mandate.
“People expected us to be a consumer protection agency for the state. That is 90% of the work that we do, but we also have a responsibility to scrutinise conduct in government.
She said that after her last road show and close scrutiny of its mandate and the law, the protector’s office had set up the good-governance division to focus on issues related to the Executive Members’ Ethics Act.
Governing the conduct of ministers, deputy ministers and provincial ministers, the law prohibits government officials from undertaking paid work outside their official employment and from using their positions to enrich themselves or improperly benefit others.
The new division also polices the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, the Protected Disclosures Act and the Promotion of Access to Information Act.
She said the investigators in the new division were the most highly trained in her office, with a deep understanding of the law and special skills in the areas of ethics, governance and corruption-busting.
Madonsela said that remedial action was a key focus of the protector’s office and she would drive this home when she met the ANC and MPs during her road show. “It’s not just about looking to prevent a recurrence of tender fraud or tender irregularities, it’s about stopping unlawful cases,” she said.
“When I first arrived at the protector’s office some of our investigators thought this kind of activity would be left to the courts. But our reading of the Constitution and benchmarking against protectors across the world confirmed my view that I am empowered to make those decisions.”
Madonsela admitted that she had been shaken by last week’s attack, but said it had just strengthened her resolve. “I went through different stages,” she said. “First the adrenalin kicked in. Then I felt sadness. Eventually I accepted these things as the hazard of the profession. Clearly, people that may have felt under attack tried to put me under attack.
“The blatant lies may take years to address,” she said. “When you Google my name it comes up next to fraud and corruption charges. The way it was done made me sad.”
But she had been overwhelmed by the response she had received in the past week. “People on the street have written and called and when I was filling up my car, a petrol attendant asked to hug me,” she said.