Drop ob­ses­sion with Madon­sela

CityPress - - Voices - Mondli Makhanya voices@city­press.co.za

If there is one thing that can be said about new Pub­lic Pro­tec­tor Bu­sisiwe Mkhwe­bane, two months into her ten­ure, it is that South Africa is bat­tling to read her. She has the nation ar­gu­ing about who she re­ally is, where she stands and what kind of Pub­lic Pro­tec­tor she will be in the long run. A South African pub­lic that ei­ther loved or hated Thuli Madon­sela wants to make up its mind about her suc­ces­sor, but is be­ing frus­trated by the con­fused sig­nals she is send­ing out.

Dur­ing in­ter­views by Par­lia­ment’s ad hoc com­mit­tee, she hardly put a foot wrong. She charmed MPs across party lines and, by the time the process was over, she was the only per­son with whom they could find com­mon ground.

The only ob­jec­tor was the DA, which raised ques­tions about her pos­si­ble past links with the state’s in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. Mkhwe­bane has out­rightly re­jected this, and other par­ties felt the DA was be­ing a spoil­sport. Al­though she did not ex­actly shoot the lights out and tower above other can­di­dates, in­ter­ested par­ties in­side and out­side Par­lia­ment just wanted to stop the ANC’s pre­ferred can­di­date, the iras­ci­ble Si­raj De­sai, from step­ping into the po­si­tion. Con­sen­sus was that this would have been a huge step back­wards.

So Mkhwe­bane seemed an un­con­tro­ver­sial choice who would grow into the po­si­tion. She was never go­ing to be a Madon­sela, and no­body was re­ally ex­pect­ing the next Pub­lic Pro­tec­tor to be a replica of the un­flap­pable woman with the mono­tone voice. All she had to do was build on the work that Madon­sela and her team had done in mak­ing the in­sti­tu­tion live up to its name.

The for­mer home af­fairs of­fi­cial was in­her­it­ing a strong set of in­di­vid­u­als who did not roll over for the strong-headed Madon­sela, but rather helped mould the in­sti­tu­tion by of­ten lock­ing horns with her.

But then Mkhwe­bane de­cided to go out of her way to de­fine her­self as “not Thuli”. Within her first few days in of­fice, she was mak­ing pro­nounce­ments about low staff morale and was mak­ing judg­men­tal state­ments on Madon­sela’s legacy. From pro­nounce­ments to ac­tions, she seems to be ob­sess­ing about show­ing the world that she is a dif­fer­ent kind of sher­iff.

Al­ready pre­ma­ture as­per­sions are be­ing cast on her, and one could ar­gue un­fairly so. She is be­ing por­trayed as some­one who was planted by the pow­ers that be to undo Madon­sela’s work by tun­ing the of­fice into a State Pro­tec­tor. A grow­ing num­ber of voices are now ask­ing whether the DA was on to some­thing after all.

Some­one should tell her that this gig is not about her – it is about an in­sti­tu­tion that has be­come a piv­otal pil­lar of this democ­racy, with­out which we would be in a much worse state than we cur­rently are. She should re­trace the steps that the Pub­lic Pro­tec­tor’s of­fice has taken back to the days of Selby Baqwa, the first per­son to oc­cupy her chair.

Baqwa was a re­spected ad­vo­cate who was tapped by Nel­son Man­dela to es­tab­lish the of­fice in 1995. With a staff that could be counted on the fin­gers of two hu­man hands and an of­fice slightly larger than a So­mali spaza shop, he be­gan to tackle dif­fi­cult complaints against a demo­cratic gov­ern­ment that was in its hon­ey­moon phase and which en­joyed mas­sive le­git­i­macy. Ini­tially, he trod care­fully so as not to alien­ate, but he still man­aged to hit hard. His role in white­wash­ing the Sara­fina! scan­dal and “manag­ing” the arms deal mul­ti­a­gency in­ves­ti­ga­tion are blotches on his record. But those are dwarfed by his achieve­ments in con­struct­ing the in­sti­tu­tion and giv­ing it a pro­file.

By the time Baqwa left of­fice in 2002, he had earned the wrath of the ANC by tak­ing on some of the party’s big guns. The of­fice of the Pub­lic Pro­tec­tor had carved out its place in the ar­chi­tec­ture of our con­sti­tu­tional or­der.

His suc­ces­sor had to build on this and take the work and rep­u­ta­tion of the of­fice to a higher place. But Lawrence Mush­wana had other ideas. Plucked from the ANC’s par­lia­men­tary benches, he saw his new job as no dif­fer­ent from his days in the party cau­cus, where he marched to the or­ders of the chief whip and the de­ploy­ment com­mit­tee. In his seven years in of­fice, he al­most en­tirely un­did Baqwa’s work.

Madon­sela should have in­her­ited a purring ma­chine in 2009, but she had to re­con­di­tion the en­gine and give the car a good panel-beat­ing. Mush­wana is spo­ken of with much de­ri­sion, in spite of his hav­ing some­what re­deemed him­self at the SA Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion.

Mkhwe­bane is in­her­it­ing an in­sti­tu­tion that is in a good place. South Africans trust the Pub­lic Pro­tec­tor’s of­fice. The rea­son they trust it to tackle their day-to-day tus­sles with the state – some of which may seem triv­ial to those who only con­cern them­selves with the macro pic­ture – is be­cause it has dis­played fear­less­ness in the face of power. Many South Africans may have fallen in love with Madon­sela’s per­sona, but, in the main, it was her work that they loved.

What Mkhwe­bane needs to ac­cept is that even though Madon­sela has moved on, she was one of those larger-than-life lead­ers who will never leave the pub­lic con­scious­ness. She will still be stopped for self­ies at su­per­mar­kets and hit head­lines when she gives pub­lic speeches. That’s okay.

Mkhwe­bane will be com­pared with her from time to time, but she must just get on with her job of pro­tect­ing the pub­lic and not ob­sess about liv­ing in Madon­sela’s shadow. Legacy – if she is at all in­ter­ested in such – will fol­low.

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