/ 11 September 2014

Editorial: Criticise Thuli, don’t insult her

Editorial: Criticise Thuli, Don't Insult Her

Ten years ago Lawrence Mushwana, then the public protector, ruled that action should be taken against former prosecutions boss Bulelani Ngcuka for infringing on Jacob Zuma’s constitutional rights. Ngcuka’s response was: “Ag shame. Poor Mushwana! I feel sorry for him.”

Zuma had complained to the public protector about Ngcuka’s statement that there was prima facie evidence of corruption against the then deputy president. Ngcuka’s sarcastic comments to Mushwana were actually a heavily loaded political statement, implying that he did not recognise the authority of the public protector. Given that Mushwana’s previous rulings were perceived as whitewashes, attempts to protect the powerful, there was no sympathy for him. But that was a mistake. Ngcuka later admitted to his staff that his statement on Mushwana was uncalled for – that it was unacceptable for such a high-ranking government official to defy the ruling of a constitutional body by insulting the public protector.

A decade later, the office of the public protector is being subjected to a volley of insults and threats, this time, ironically, for questioning Zuma’s conduct. The ANC Youth League, ministers and Deputy Defence Minister Kebby Maphatsoe, who is also the Umkhonto weSizwe military veterans’ head, damned Thuli Madonsela and sought to undermine her authority and office by labelling her a “CIA agent”. Only a slight improvement, you might say, on the earlier words of Congress of South African Students secretary general Tshiamo Tsotetsi, who called Madonsela “that woman with the big, ugly nose”.

Despite the ANC’s statement distancing itself from such offensive and at times threatening remarks, no one has been charged by the ruling party through its disciplinary processes. In fact, no one will be charged, because the party’s top leaders – including its secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, and his deputy, Jessie Duarte – have also impugned the integrity and dignity of the office of the public protector, with impunity.

It’s about time that the law takes its course and Maphatsoe and others who fling such insults are charged in terms of the Public Protector Act. Section 9(1)(a) states that no one can insult the public protector or her deputy. We agree that public criticism of the decision of any public institution, including the courts, is part of our accountability system, but throwing around accusations of treachery and the like is not only silly, especially if it’s wholly untrue, but also amounts to undermining these institutions.

Madonsela has her flaws and has probably made mistakes in her rulings. There are systems, including review by the courts and parliamentary processes, to question her conduct and rulings. MPs from both the ruling and opposition parties have taken her on and challenged her conduct before. This is what ought to happen in a democracy, not baseless insults.