NATIONAL NEWS - Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane briefed the media on the release of several new reports on Thursday, including ones which clear corruption-accused former ministers Baleka Mbete, Faith Muthambi, and Tina Joemat-Pettersson of various allegations investigated by her office.
Mbete has been cleared of allegations that she was bribed by Invictus Gold, a consortium of mining company Goldfields.
Muthambi has been cleared of allegedly politically interfering with affairs at state broadcaster the SABC while communications minister.
Joemat-Pettersson has been cleared of attempting to accelerate a proposed nuclear deal with Russia while minister of energy.
“We have closed several investigations on the grounds that allegations that triggered them were all unsubstantiated. We have prepared closing reports to mark the end of these matters,” said Mkhwebane.
At the briefing, Mkhwebane painted a positive picture, saying that when she reflected “on the year that was”, she felt her office “recorded major wins but also suffered a minor setback”.
Which setback she is referring to is unclear, as the public protector suffered various legal defeats throughout 2019.
She singled out the Constitutional Court personal costs order relating to her Absa/Bankorp investigation, saying it was her “considered view” that it threatened her office’s independence and set a worrying precedent that would impact her work as well as that of future public protectors.
In July, the ConCourt upheld a ruling at the High Court in Pretoria finding that the entire report was flawed and should be overturned.
The High Court in Pretoria had overturned the report in February 2018, saying it showed a “reasonable apprehension of bias” and ordering Mkhwebane to pay 15% of the SA Reserve Bank’s (SARB) legal costs, while the office of the public protector was ordered to pay the remaining 85%.
Her report, released in June 2017, accused Absa (previously Bankcorp) of having illegally gifted the SARB with R1.125 billion in “misappropriated public funds” under the apartheid government in the 1980s.
At the briefing on Thursday, the public protector said her office was facing “challenges” from the SARB in connection with another investigation into the bank’s alleged role in the VBS scandal, which she said “does not seem to believe we have jurisdiction over it”. This, she said, was a misinterpretation of the ConCourt costs order.
She announced that other investigations in their advanced stages include ones into the Vrede Dairy Project; an expensive website purchased by the Free State government; Eskom power-plants Kusile and Medupu; the departure of Jonas Makwakwa from the South African Revenue Service; Eskom’s deals with independent power producers; and the Giyani Water Project.
She also cited her office’s victories at the briefing, which according to her include receiving positive feedback after an unqualified audit from the auditor-general; her office reducing irregular expenditure by R16 million; the groundswell of praise she said her office received for a report on Toyota affecting the taxi industry and commuters; and various successful investigations by her office which have helped SA’s most poor and vulnerable. She said her office has issued 46 reports in the past year.
She admitted that she occupied a challenging position. “Sometimes it looks easy from the outside looking in. It’s only on the inside, in the thick of things, that you realise this work is not the proverbial bed of roses,” she said.
Discussing the imminent appointment of her new deputy, she said she hoped the new deputy public protector would have “a thick skin to withstand everything that is coming our way”.