MKHWEBANE USES HER SECOND STINT AT PUBLIC PROTECTOR TO IMPACT THE GRASSROOTS

When Adv. Busisiwe Makhwebane severed ties with the Public Protector South Africa twelve years ago, she had no idea she would one day return to the independent constitutional institution; let alone as its head

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Her departure for greener pastures in 2005 had brought to an end a six-year stint during which she served as a Senior Investigator and Acting Head of the institution’s Gauteng provincial operations.

Ten years on, Adv. Mkhwebane is back at the public sector watchdog to investigate, report on and remedy improper conduct in all state affairs.

Her homecoming as Public Protector in October 2016 came on the back of a rigorous and transparent selection process, which resulted in a stamp of approval from President Jacob Zuma.

But, for many, the University of the North law graduate, who holds B Proc and LLB degrees from that institution, was a surprise choice.

She emerged as a dark horse late in the race to replace Adv. Thuli Madonsela and went on to beat 58 other hopefuls for the job, including favourites Judge Siraj Desai; her deputy, Adv. Kevin Malunga; Deputy National Director of Public Prosecutions, Adv. Willie Hofmeyr; and Adv. Bongani Majola, her former lecturer, who has since been appointed as chairperson of sister Chapter 9 institution, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

Born in the farming town of Bethal in Mpumalanga to a farm worker dad and domestic worker mother 47 years ago, Adv. Mkhwebane cut her professional teeth when she joined the then KwaNdebele administration as a Public Prosecutor in 1994.

The Bantustan government had funded her university studies and, as part of the agreement, she had to swell the ranks of its bureaucracy upon completion of her academic activities.

In later years, she plied her trade at a number of institutions including the Department of Justice, where she was a Legal Administration Officer; SAHRC where she was a researcher; Home Affairs where she spent 11 years in senior management within the department’s immigration services component and State Security Agency, where she was an analyst.

Some of her notable achievements include the following:

  • She was part of the team that drafted the country report on Human and People’s Rights Charter, which was deposited with the African Union;
  • She was a member of the National Action Plan on Human Rights Coordinating Committee, which drafted the National Plan in Human Rights deposited with the United Nations High Commissioner on 10 December 1998;
  • During her first spell at the Public Protector South Africa, she oversaw the successful establishment and launch of the Gauteng Provincial Office; and
  • She also participated in the drafting and signing of the tripartite plan of operation for the repatriation of Angolan Refugees between the Department of Home Affairs, its Angolan counterpart and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

But it is her latest spell at the Public Protector South Africa that has turned her into a household name.

Nearly a year since taking office, the mother of two has settled well into her demanding job and, true to her word that she would “hit the ground running”, she has proved equal to the task, registering impressive achievements in the ten months she has been on the hot seat.

According to her office’s latest Annual Report, tabled in Parliament at the end of August, Adv. Mkhwebane and her team managed to finalise a whopping 10 787 of the 16 397 cases handled during the year that ended March 2017.

Out of these, 49% were upheld while 27% were not. In the rest of the complaints, no conclusion was drawn.

As many as 17 investigation reports were issued during the period concerned. Among the issues of concern coming out of these reports were whistle-blower victimisation, problems of workmen’s compensation, governance matters plaguing the local government and the plight of small business people, who are frustrated by organs of state, either through failure to pay for services rendered or the irregular awarding of tenders at the expense of deserving Small, Medium and Micro-sized Enterprises.

The rest of the matters—mostly “bread and butter” cases—were finalised through alternative dispute resolution mechanisms such as mediation, conciliation and negotiation. This approach involves sitting the warring parties around the table and brokering a settlement that is agreed to, in writing, by the parties. No formal reports are required in this instance.

In addition to these successes, the office continued to travel far and wide in the country to introduce more communities to the institution while registering new complaints for investigation as it went along.As many as 803 community outreach programmes were held countrywide in this regard. These contributed to the total figure of 9 563 new complaints received during the period under review.

The driving force behind Adv. Mkhwebane’s accomplishments thus far has been the blueprint she presented to Parliament April. Titled ‘Vision 2023: Taking the Service of Public Protector to the Grassroots’, the plan came out of a two-day strategic planning session that she held with her management team less than a month into the job.

In terms of this eight-pillar approach, not only is she striving to take services closer to the doorsteps of far-flung communities but she is making use of community radio and public broadcaster services to engage her target audience in their own languages.

The aim is to enhance communities’ understanding of her office’s mandate and how it can help them, too, to enjoy the fruits of democracy.

Recognising that her office is inadequately funded, Adv. Mkhwebane has been exploring innovative ways to leverage stakeholder relations with a view to increasing the office’s footprint from 19 offices to more service centres. Magistrates’ courts and traditional leadership offices are among the avenues she has identified for this purpose.

Adv. Mkhwebane, who was admitted as an advocate of the high court in June 1997, is determined to ensure that the poor see, in her office, a refuge and stronghold under whose safeguard they can escape the tentacles of maladministration.

Empowering the public to enforce their rights by peacefully holding their leaders to account so as to free her hands to focus mainly on addressing systemic public sector challenges also ranks highly on her priority list.

Linked to this is the need for organs of state to establish their own effective complaints resolution units or sector-specific Ombudsman institutions such as the Health and Military Ombudsman.It is also Adv. Mkhwebane’s dream to leave behind a well-empowered public that is well-informed about their rights and freedoms and how to exact accountability on state functionaries by the time she leaves office in 2023, hence ‘Vision 2023’.

Despite these feats, Adv. Mkhwebane’s first year has not been without difficulties. As soon as she commenced her seven-year, non-renewable term of office, falsehoods started swirling in the media, ensuring that her term of office got off to a rather bumpy start.

Among the claims were that she was soft on the government and that she would turn a blind eye to corruption involving high-profile figures.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she says. “In fact, it is the poor that suffer the most when funds are syphoned from the public purse to swell the pockets of the corrupt and the unscrupulous,” she says.

Amid all the negativity, she has learned to develop a thick skin and remain focused on the job at hand.

“The roll-out of ‘Vision 2023’ has been something of a rollercoaster ride, given the prevailing mood and hostility directed at my office,” she observes. “This has been very distractive for the team and for me.”

Adv. Mkhwebane adds that her immediate interest is to keep the team’s eyes firmly fixed on the ball so that they stay on course, despite the noise.

“Having said that”, she adds, “we have been careful not to be arrogant and deaf to constructive criticism.”

An example is the recent criticism of the High Court in the CIEX/ABSA Lifeboat matter. “I consented to the order to set aside the remedial action and the judgment in that matter was handed down on 15 August 2017. We have taken that punch with humility. And we are going to draw lessons from it.

“Though the report is binding until set aside by the Court, this report is also the subject of judicial review,” she says.

Adv. Mkhwebane believes that this approach is important, as thousands of ordinary people look to her office to contribute to their wish of seeing their quality of life improving and their potential freed.

Her message to the people of South Africa: “I commit to serve you without fear or favour, subject only to the Constitution and the rule of law.” 

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