RIGHT OF REPLY
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has made it clear that the government will continue supporting the work of the public protector.
The public protector is fundamental to our constitutional dispensation. Therefore, claims that there are perceived attempts to curtail her funding because of the work her office is doing (Public protector: ‘Hearts have hardened’) are serious and require an in-depth response.
The government is committed to ensuring that the public protector is able to deliver quality services. And we put our money where our mouths are. The public protector’s budget has grown exponentially – even in a climate of reduced state revenue.
Her office was given significant increases in budget, from R114-million in 2010-2011 to R246-million in 2015-2016.
In addition, on two occasions this year the minister of finance gave additional funding to the public protector. In February R60-million was allocated, and in October it was announced that over the next three years the public protector will receive additional allocations.
Would we be giving the office of the public protector additional allocations if the institution was not of vital importance? Surely not.
The public protector has received a 13% increase for the 2015-2016 financial year, whereas the department of justice and constitutional development received a 2.5% increase and Legal Aid South Africa a 4% increase.
The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is now performing the same functions with less money (R305-million) than it did in 2011-2012 (R323-million), because of enhanced efficiency.
The real dispute is whether the funds allocated to the public protector are being put to effective use.
In terms of the Constitution, the public protector is accountable to the National Assembly. The current public protector, unfortunately, has not shown much enthusiasm for this.
This is the reason behind the strained relations between the public protector and the current portfolio committee on justice, as well as the portfolio committee under the previous Parliament.
Thuli Madonsela creates the impression that it is the ANC members of the committee who are acrimonious, but the fact of the matter is the committee, particularly the one that served under the previous Parliament, was united across party lines in its concern in this regard.
For example, in October 2013 there was a discussion between the public protector and MPs over her powers and mandate. As far as MPs from across the party political spectrum were concerned, the public protector was accountable to the National Assembly through its justice committee on all aspects of her job. Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts stated at the time that the public protector “appeared unwilling to be held accountable by MPs”.
Issues of concern that have been raised by the committee include a duplication of investigations. The public protector could do more to reduce costs by not taking on cases that can be investigated and dealt with by another body.
For example, her office continues to investigate grievances by public servants against their employer. These should be investigated by the Public Service Commission. Why is the public protector allocating resources to such matters when the commission is the appropriate body?
The public protector sometimes duplicates the work of the SIU when legislation specifically provides for the public protector to refer matters to the SIU when it is the more appropriate body to investigate, and vice versa.
Other concerns raised by the committee have related to the management of funds in the public protector’s office and the qualified audits it received up until the last financial year. The report by the auditor general in relation to the public protector’s financial statements for 2013-2014 shows weaknesses in financial management, such as the fact that effective steps were not taken to prevent irregular expenditure.
Questions need to be asked regarding the cost of the public protector’s overseas travel. During the period September 2014 to August 2015, the public protector travelled abroad 15 times and was out of the country for 77 days. Given the cost-cutting measures introduced by the treasury, are all these trips really necessary?
Madonsela’s assertions that I wanted to reduce the footprint of her office are incorrect. The issue was never about lessening the footprint. It was about the overconcentration of offices in certain areas, which seemed to contradict the need to ensure an even geographic spread of offices so that as many people as possible could be reached. For example, there are offices in Upington, Kuruman and Vryburg, while the Eastern Cape only has one office.
It is strange that the public protector claims that certain regional offices are being closed because of a lack of funding yet her spokesperson, Oupa Segalwe, said it was decided to shut the offices in Mpumalanga and Port Elizabeth because they were underuse. It is also interesting that, despite the claims of closing offices as a result of being cash-strapped, a tender is out for a new regional office in Kroonstad.
The public protector sees a contradiction in the fact that the justice portfolio committee celebrates when new small claims courts are opened. Surely the public protector knows that small claims courts cost very little money to establish – they make use of existing court infrastructure and the commissioners who preside over these courts work free of charge.
The public protector is an important institution. Debates such as these must be based on facts, not on conspiracy theories.
John Jeffery is the deputy minister of justice and constitutional development