It was not an auspicious start. Less than three working days into her seven-year term, public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane made Parliament a promise she cannot possibly keep without utterly bankrupting the institution.
She immediately followed that by giving away the only piece of budget leverage her newly assumed office has ever held – unless she breaks a second promise, so providing another stick to beat her with.
“Going forward, I commit no consultant will be utilised in that office, no donor funding will be requested in that office,” Mkhwebane told Parliament’s justice committee in formal, recorded, broadcasted proceedings.
She had already discussed these directives with the management she inherited, she said.
In the past financial year the public protector spent R7.6-million of a R255-million budget on consultants and professional services. The majority of that went to the lawyers brought in to defend legal action brought by various organisations, such as the SABC and national government departments, following damning findings against them.
Although the public protector can call on the state law adviser for help, so can – and do – government departments, and the presidency.
A second large contributor to consultant costs was paying for an internal audit, and the majority of the rest of the line item went to paying for the services of experts in the sometimes obscure fields the office finds itself investigating.
To eliminate spending on consultants entirely, Mkhwebane would need to create from scratch an entire litigation department and an entire internal audit department, and she would need to hire specialists in – based on major investigations in recent years – mining in general, coal mining in particular, nuclear power, various types of construction, physical security, midsized water provision, railway infrastructure of all types, small-scale agriculture and the housing of cattle, the aviation market, property leasing, life insurance, vicious wildlife and motor licence plates. The majority of these experts, however, would spend most of their time entirely idle.
By the calculation of her predecessor, as presented by Mkhwebane on Wednesday, her office is already short of more than 200 desperately needed full-time members of staff without those new requirements.
Although she never said so directly, Mkhwebane’s discomfort with consultants seemed to stem from two issues: that consultants were used in compiling the so-called state capture report President Jacob Zuma is fighting to hold back, and the fact that consultants dealing with sensitive information are possibly not security-screened by the government.
Her immediate follow-up vow, to stop donor funding, came after MPs expressed their displeasure at the disclosure that the public protector’s office had secured a $500 000 grant from the United States Agency for International Development, to create a much-needed case-management system.
It also has an ongoing relationship with the German government’s Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), mostly centred on outreach projects and broad education on good governance.
“Donor funding, it is a thing of the past,” Mkhwebane said. “We will stay away from that.”
MPs, from the ANC in particular, severely criticised previous public protector Thuli Madonsela for accepting such donations, saying it risked national sovereignty.
In the past financial year, Parliament received R38.7-million in donor funding from the European Union, with which the presidency also has a long-standing relationship as a channel through which donations are channelled.
In 2014 Madonsela herself said she had initially not been “comfortable” with accepting GIZ money for internal processes – but when she found there was no money to work with, her attitude changed.
Although she scrupulously avoided wording it directly as blackmail, Madonsela made it clear to Parliament time and again that adequate funding from the national purse would mean her office could turn away donations. Entirely unstated was the possibility that the office could fund itself far more extensively from public and foreign donations if Parliament were to reduce funding to, say, encourage the deprioritisation of certain types of investigations.
While Madonsela’s appearances before Parliament delivered some of the most terse committee meetings the institution has ever seen, justice committee chair Mathole Motshekga told Mkhwebane she could be “assured of our support”. He lavished praise on her for being “a team player” and said she would find his committee “very responsive”.
He made no promises on funding, while also proving to have an alarmingly poor memory. His committee had never been a scene of rudeness, he said, nor a place where political games were played.
Mkhwebane, on the other hand, seemed committed to institutional memory in a way parts of the justice committee may find uncomfortable. She delivered, with no editing and remarkably little editorialising, the annual report prepared and tabled by her predecessor, which Madonsela could not herself present because the committee simply could not schedule a hearing with her before her term expired on October 15.
Besides her promises on consultants and donor funding, Mkhwebane’s major point of policy departure from Madonsela seemed to be a plan to use less poetic titles for investigative reports.
The report she does not like to call “the state capture report” – but nonetheless does – Mkhwebane told journalists after the committee meeting, remained completed, just as Madonsela had said it would, though in limbo, until a court rules on various demands that it not be released.
That too, she strongly implied, will not be edited.
“The report is finalised, so if the court says we publish the report, the normal process will be followed,” she said.