/ 15 March 2012

The speaker, the protector and the summons that wasn’t

The Speaker

It could have been a rather unique situation: a parliamentary committee calling the man who technically oversees it onto the red carpet. Instead, the story of the public protector, the speaker, their meeting and the implications thereof turned out a little different on Thursday.

In what became an increasingly confused sequence of events, it even seemed for a while that Thuli Madonsela (and especially her office CEO Themba Mthetwa) could be under fire from Parliament’s presiding officers, on the basis of a complaint by a group of disgruntled employees in their office.

Concerns have often been raised that Madonsela’s work would draw the ire of high-ranking officials.

The less well-known Mthetwa was suspended by former protector Lawrence Mushwana, who had apparently accused the CEO of misconduct and a failure to disclose important information when he was hired.

Madonsela lifted the suspension as one of her first acts after taking over the office. All of which may explain why the Democratic Alliance raised the red flag. Rather prematurely, as it turned out.

The DA, by way of the justice and constitutional development spokesperson Debbie Schafer, initially vehemently objected to a report that parliamentary speaker Max Sisulu had called Madonsela to a meeting on January 13, to discuss allegations the anonymous group of employees had handed over to Parliament. The opposition party threatened to call Sisulu to account in turn.

“The whole point of a chapter nine institution is be be completely independent,” said Schafer. “If there is any truth in that then the speaker should come and explain to us in Parliament why that happened, and why the matter didn’t come to the justice portfolio committee, where it could have been handled transparently.”

Though the portfolio committee can summon Madonsela to explain the nature of the meeting, and has called on her to appear before it in the past, it is not clear whether it could have done the same with the speaker, who oversees the administration of the committee.

Then the matter became moot, when Madonsela later on Thursday told a conference in Muldersdrift that the meeting that kicked the whole saga off had, in fact, been about the Protection of State Information Bill, and had not dealt with disgruntled employees.

“That meeting had nothing, I repeat nothing, to do with governance and administration in my office,” she said.

The New Age on Thursday morning reported Madonsela had been summoned to Parliament in mid-January for “a marathon meeting” with Sisulu and the chair of the National Council of Provinces, Mninwa Mahlangu, as well as their deputies, on the basis of a 12-page document drafted by a group of employees within her office.

In it, the newspaper said the employees complained that Mthetwa was central to problems that included maladministration, financial misconduct and favouring whites and Indians over black employees. It also accused Madonsela of ignoring the situation, leaving staff “demoralised, bitter and distrustful”.

Before Madonsela’s comments were published, the DA’s Schafer said such allegations were very serious and are best handled in an open forum, where they can be laid to rest or investigated, whichever is appropriate. “It is in the interests of democracy to deal with these things in a way that stops more rumours,” she said.

Subsequently Sisulu also weighed in, saying he was disappointed at how things had played out, and at the unnecessary confusion.

“A summons? We leave those to the judiciary. To say we summoned the protector would be far-fetched. That meeting was part of regular contact between us and the protector. There was nothing extraordinaryr unusual about it … We respect the independence of that office.”

Told that the meeting may have had nothing to do with issues affecting the functioning of the protector’s office, Schafer admitted that it could change matters.

“If the Protector wants to see the speaker about a Bill before Parliament, then she has the right to do that. He doesn’t have the right to summon her, and we don’t want discussions about matters in her office behind closed doors, but if she goes to him, that’s different.” — additional reporting by Sapa