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S. Africa MPs debate removal of protector

Sunday January 26 2020

South Africa Public Protector

South Africa's Economic Freedom Fighters party MPs celebrate prior to an unsuccessful vote of no-confidence against President Jacob Zuma on August 8, 2017 in the South African National Assembly in Cape Town. MPs are preparing to determine the aptitude of the Public Protector. PHOTO | MARK WESSELS | AFP 

CHRIS ERASMUS
By CHRIS ERASMUS
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It is not just in America that an impeachment against a top official is under way.

Parliament in South Africa is preparing to hear arguments for what amounts to an indictment and early removal from office of the state watchdog.

The Public Protector (PP), embodied by Busisiwe Mkhwebane, is meant to act as a watchdog against government excesses.

The position is protected by the constitution and requires Parliament, which appoints the PP for seven-year stint, to dismiss the incumbent.

From early on in her time as chairperson, Mkhwebane has been controversial.

She has had her findings successfully challenged and received reprimands from courts for overstepping her authority and misunderstanding basics of the law.

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As a result of jurists’ slap-downs, including from the highest court, and her recent findings against President Cyril Ramaphosa and public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan, she is seen to have brought her office into disrepute and drawn it into the partisan politics.

IMPEACHMENT MOTION

Mkhwebane denies being biased, or that she has done anything wrong. She has vowed to take her fight to court.

She was appointed by a parliament controlled by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), during Jacob Zuma’s presidency.

National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise has approved a motion by the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) to remove Mkhwebane.

The process is a near-parallel to what is going on in the US as President Donald Trump faces an impeachment trial.

A panel is to be appointed, made up of representatives of parliamentary parties, to determine if the removal process against Mkhwebane should go to the next step.

Sources say the panel will find that the debate on her removal be held even though Zuma’s time Parliament rejected a similar motion.

Parliament spokesperson Moloto Mothapo said the motion would follow new rules adopted late last year after six months of wrangling between parties on the correct way of removing a constitutionally protected person from office.

The panel to assess Mkhwebane’s fitness is meant to be independent, but that is on paper.

NASTY SHOWDOWN

While the DA, which has been trying to remove Mkhwebane since 2018, is delighted with the announcement, there are many hurdles still.

Given that the faction of the ruling party that backs Zuma has espoused Mkhwebane as one of its own, mainly because of her findings on Ramaphosa and Gordhan, and that the feisty Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has done likewise, there is almost certain to be a nasty showdown in Parliament when the debate takes place.

A defiant Mkhwebane said there were no formal rules for her removal, triggering the establishment of the new rules.

It is likely, also, that the fight to remove her will demonstrate the splits in the ruling party.

Apart from her relatively small but noisy band of supporters, Mkhwebane has not been popular as was her predecessor, and her removal would likely be seen by many as a victory for those who want a stable, sustainable body politic in South Africa.

Mkhwebane will begin her defence on the back foot, with many critics in ANC.

She doesn't even know the law, according Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli, who says there is no legal basis of disclosure demands made by Mkhwebane of Ramaphosa.

INCOMPETENT WATCHDOG

The panel to decide her fate will be set up by early February and would have 30 days to make its findings and recommendations.

The DA is itching to have Mkhwebane out, launching its latest assault on her just three days after the new rules.

DA chief whip Natasha Mazzone says Mkhwebane’s appointment had been opposed by the party and even accused her of being a spy.

“She has time and again proved to be unfit to hold office, has demonstrated inability to conduct her work independently and has illustrated a poor understanding of the law as well as of her mandate,” Mazzone said.

“Worse, Mkhwebane’s actions have caused immeasurable damage to the once respected office.”

While the saga might yet take some months to play out, and Mkhwebane has vowed to fight her removal all the way, sources in the ANC says she has so annoyed Ramaphosa and his supporters that she has little chance of holding on to her office.

Chris Erasmus writes from Pretoria. [email protected]

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