Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane took over as South Africa’s new Public Protector on October 14, the day her predecessor Thuli Madonsela famously ended her seven-year term.
Although Mkhwebane describes her first day in office as one of her best, she says she was thrown in the deep end when she had to present the State of Capture report compiled by Madonsela.
We visit Mkhwebane on a rainy day in Pretoria in the office of the Public Protector, where, on the wall now is a framed photograph of Mkhwebane, alongside South African President Jacob Zuma and his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa.
She appears wearing a charming smile and a red dress with a leopard print blazer.
Mkhwebane grew up in Kwaggafontein, a dusty village in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa, born to a farmworker who was an unskilled laborer for Sasol; her mother was a housewife.
When only 17, Mkhwebane became a mother, and had to go in and out of court to seek child support from her then boyfriend.
She had initially wanted to become a social worker, but the courtroom visits actually influenced her to study law.
“It exposed me to another element of assisting, at first I wanted to work in court and be a judge. Having my first child at a young age encouraged me to be educated,” says Mkhwebane.
After obtaining a degree in law from the University of the North, she followed it up with a Diploma in Corporate Law and Higher Diploma in Tax Law from Rand Afrikaans University. She has worked as a Director of the Country Information and Cooperation Management Unit for the Department of Home Affairs.
Today, as the new Public Protector, she is in the media glare. She has big shoes to fill.
“We had Pastor At Boshoff of the Christian Revival Church welcome the staff, so for me that was the highlight. It was like homecoming because I had worked for the office before and [was] meeting old colleagues,” says Mkhwebane, who in 1999 had worked at the Public Protector’s office as a Senior Investigator and Acting Provincial Representative.
Just before taking over, Mkhwebane says she only met Madonsela for a brief 20 minutes, although, she wishes she had more time with her because she had to present the State of Capture report in Parliament the following week.
“I dealt with it, because I never prepared that report but I owned it. It’s one of the performances which the former Public Protector has achieved. She was excellent in that and whatever was in the annual report I had to present it as my own,” she says.
One of the most high-profile cases in recent history was Madonsela’s investigation of Zuma’s estimated R246-million (approx. $17.3 million as per current exchange rate)public spending on the security upgrades of his home in Nkandla in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province.
“I met her only once on her last day, I was supposed to receive the handover report unfortunately she had slept in the office busy preparing it and in the morning when I arrived, she wasn’t here so I only met with the CEO and other senior managers,” she says.
“I’ve got nothing against her; she’s got nothing against me. When we met, I thanked her and told her that I will take over from her and [take] the office to greater heights.”
Mkhwebane’s appointment came with its share of controversy when the Democratic Alliance (DA) claimed she was a spy for Zuma. Mkhwebane denies this.
“I’ve never had an interaction with President Zuma besides meeting him when he visited China for a state visit; I was responsible for communication when we were arranging the local media for interviews, that’s when we were in the same room but not even interacting. The DA is making a frivolous allegation that I’m a spy and they are not bringing any proof after I indicated several times that they need to disclose their sources who are lying to them.” Despite the unsubstantiated claims, she is pressing on with her work, tackling criticism head on.
“It sometimes builds you as a person. I’m not one to act out of that and be emotional and angry. I analyze what I’m criticized for and what I can learn from it. And you won’t satisfy every person,” she says.
The first thing she noticed after assuming office was staff morale was an issue.
“There are people who haven’t signed their performance agreements for the past two years and some have taken the institution to the CCMA, what do you call that?” says Mkhwebane.
The next seven years in office, she hopes to empower ordinary people to stand up for what is right and hold leaders to account.
Madonsela will be remembered for her fight against corruption. Time will tell if Mkhwebane will live up to the admiration many hold for the Public Protector’s office.
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