When she talks about the obviously acrimonious relationship between her office and government – or the ANC – public protector Thuli Madonsela speaks carefully, and with the clear intention not to offend.
But there are times when she comes close to exasperation, such as when she talks of her office’s financial troubles, resulting in the closure of its regional offices. “It’s terrible,” she told the Mail & Guardian this week.
The public protector is closing regional offices because of a lack of funds. When Madonsela went to Parliament’s portfolio committee on justice this year to ask for more money, she says she was “treated like a child”.
Four regional public protector’s offices have already been closed, and another is about to close. Plans to open two more offices are on hold. Some offices are merging, and staff have had to move towns.
But Madonsela says the efficacy of her institution is dependent on the proximity of offices to the communities in which they operate.
“Out of sight is out of mind. Yes, they can call us telephonically, but when there’s a crisis, it’s not the same as being able to walk into that office and complain and hope they can walk back with you to where the problem is.”
Parliament accused Madonsela’s office of being financially irresponsible, but she says this is not true. She says she inherited debt thanks to rental agreements, previously handled by the department of public works, which did not hand over the entire budget to her office when it stopped handling the agreement.
“You don’t get a chance to explain things,” she says, speaking of her exchanges with the portfolio committee in Parliament. “The approach you get is to ridicule you, you are treated like a child … There’s no proper engagement about what really happened.”
It began with John Jeffery, now deputy justice minister, who sat on the portfolio committee on justice at the time. “He was the one who initiated the idea that the public protector’s footprint should be lessened. His argument was that government was tightening its belt,” Madonsela says, adding that the closure of these offices will mean that people will have less recourse, even if smaller offices are merged.
“Our people come from a background of oral tradition. Even now, they would rather drive all the way from the outskirts of the country to come and complain. They want you to look at their face and see their pain. Trust is built better when there is physical proximity.”
Madonsela would like to expand her office’s mobile services, “but we don’t have money for that,” she says with a small laugh.
“You lose a safety valve … But my greatest worry is despair and people not being served on time. Time lapses when people don’t know where to go, people are out of school, or they die before the complaints are resolved, if [they] ever [do] get resolved.
“People then take it to the street, because people feel powerless. And when people feel powerless, they become destructive.”
What is Madonsela’s personal opinion on why Parliament won’t give her office more money?
“I don’t know. The belt-tightening explanation does not hold. For example, the same portfolio committee celebrates whenever there is an announcement that more small claims courts have been opened.
“The Special Investigating Unit started with a small budget. It has fewer cases than us, but their budget has been increased and it is now higher than us.
“So I don’t really know what the issue is. I think the way forward might be to have an independent committee to deal with budgets.”
With little rational explanation, would it be a stretch to say this is an attempt to clamp down on her office because of her investigations, especially Nkandla?
“I wish I knew what was happening. I know the kinds of cases where decisions were not light have influenced the character of the dialogue. It never used to be acrimonious.
“There is hardening of hearts because of the cases we have dealt with. I would say it started after the Independent Electoral Commission case. The ruling party became very, very bitter. We did not understand why the ruling party would defend a chapter nine institution.
“It started with Bheki Cele,” she says, on second thought, referring to her adverse findings against the former police commissioner. “Then after Nkandla, all hell broke loose.”
Madonsela says next year her office may meet with political parties to discuss her relationship with Parliament. She has discussed the idea of “disagreeing without being acrimonious” with the ANC.
“I honestly think we provide services to whoever the governing party is. The truth is, we highlight a problem that already exists. We don’t invent the problem. And if we step aside, people find their own way of getting it solved. And often that is destructive.”