Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

Institutions established by the constitution to support democracy in SA have written to the national command council managing the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis requesting they be included in the process.

Public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane told the justice and correctional services committee on Saturday that the chair of the forum representing these institutions — which include the office of the public protector, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the SA Human Rights Commission, the Commission on Gender Equality and the auditor-general — had written to the national command council with this request.

The chair of the forum is IEC chair Glen Mashinini.

Mkhwebane said the constitution has not been suspended by the national state of disaster and the constitution has been violated in the implementation of the regulations. She said the office of the public protector has not been consulted by the national command council in the drafting of the regulations.

There have been numerous allegations of abuse by police and defence force personnel under the regulations. The DA is also challenging the constitutionality of the Disaster Management Act on the grounds that the national command council is passing laws without parliamentary oversight.

The office of the public protector is resisting a demand by the Treasury to cut its budget by 17%, or R57.6m, saying this will affect the achievement of its targets.

The Treasury has requested all government departments and entities of state to propose budget cuts to achieve an expenditure reduction of R130bn to help finance the R500bn Covid-19 stimulus package.

In fact, acting CFO of the public protector’s office, Tshiamo Senosi, told the committee the public protector is asking for an increase in its budget — R53m for 2020/2021, R41m for 2021/2022 and R51m for 2022/2023. Money is required for the funding of critical positions, the payment of experts, security, training and the acquisition of a case management system.

“PPSA (the office of the public protector) is in dire need to acquire an electronic case management system for its investigations programme,” Senosi said. “Now cases are monitored and managed manually and it is an enormous task for an institution with such a huge caseload — and a risk of data integrity.”

In addition, there had been unplanned-for costs resulting from Covid-19 and the lockdown, including the R3.7m purchase of laptops so staff could work from home and expenditure on personal protective equipment.

The public protector’s office obtained a R339m transfer from the government in 2020, with the cost of compensating employees being R266m, including annual cost of living adjustments.

“Furthermore, the goods and services budget of R72.7m is mainly made up of contractual obligations of R60.7m, funding of key activities in the annual performance plan of R3.1m and operational costs of R8.8m,” Senosi said.

“Despite various cost containment efforts the PPSA has implemented in the past financial years, there is still a huge gap in the funding allocation. The situation therefore hinders the office to function effectively and confidently to achieve its mandate and strategic priorities.”

Senosi said the Treasury has been informed that the public protector is unable to absorb any budget cuts and a response is awaited.

Mkhwebane also told MPs that R260,000 has been raised through crowdfunding to pay for one of the personal-cost orders handed down by the high court on one of her reports, several of which have been heavily criticised in court judgments.

Responding to a question by African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart on litigation costs, Mkhwebane said it is of concern that the public protector’s office is portrayed as the only institution that is facing litigation issues.

Other institutions accountable to the justice committee also have high litigation costs, for example the department of justice at about R18bn, the Special Investigating Unit at R21m, the SA Police Service at about R300m and the department of home affairs at about R1.9bn.

ensorl@businesslive.co.za