A tale of two public protectors
Thuli Madonsela and her successor Busisiwe Mkhwebane represent opposite sides of the same coin and have received diametrically opposite treatment from the ANC — to an extent that beggars belief
To understand why the ANC has blithely ignored the increasingly scathing criticism of public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, we need to understand history.
Today, two things define much contemporary political analysis. First, it focuses on dynasties. Second, as a consequence, it devolves from the president — the defining metaphor for all power, ideology and political character — to the party, which is painted as a mere extension of the incumbent’s personality.
The dynasty today is the ANC. It has controlled national power in SA for 24 years, with a hegemonic omnipotence. The closest it has come to losing a national election is the 62.15% it got in 2014. In 1994, it got 62.25%. There is talk of it dropping into the 50% bracket in 2019, but little serious talk of it losing its majority.
This represents a quandary for those who would argue that, in theory, SA is a modern constitutional democracy rather than, effectively, a one-party state. Obviously, that’s a far less palatable idea for any patriot.
So to maintain the pretence of plurality, the ANC’s various presidencies are treated as separate epochs. The eras of Mandela, Mbeki, Zuma and Ramaphosa are (we are assured) distinctive. Some good, some bad. But each different.
The ANC dynasty has become a surrogate for our democracy. Power rises and falls inside the ANC. Ideology waxes and wanes. Factions come and go. It can be corrupt or clean, efficient or incompetent. The party can decline and renew, but never fall.
The dynasty endures, immune not just to actual political competition but to the very idea of it. In turn, the ANC dynasty is immune to any meaningful assessment of its overarching character. It is also immune to accountability for its collective failures.
Instead, such things are carefully ascribed to the relevant epoch.
The consequence is a fixation with personality. "Big man" politics defines political analysis. The ANC, as an organisation with its own ideological character, defined in great detail in its many policies, is reduced to no more than the background, against which the president’s personality is framed.
What it means
At present the ANC is unable to see itself for what it is and perhaps only time will relieve this myopia
If he is seen to represent a certain school of thought, then those pre-existing ANC ideas that complement that position are emphasised as indicative of it. In turn, those ideas that might stand in opposition to his personal philosophy are described as the battleground for change and renewal.
For political analysts, each idea is inevitably a projection of the current zeitgeist onto the ANC. So, if the economy is strong, then Jacob Zuma is necessary to socialise and bolster the union’s hand. If the economy is weak, then Cyril Ramaphosa is needed to centralise, restore fiscal responsibility and reduce the public wage bill. And so the dynasty self-replicates.
Like the ANC, policy becomes an extension of the ANC’s internal politics, rather than a public commodity.
But what the president is never measured against are those ANC impulses that exist between the lines, the hidden ideological glue that binds the ANC and makes it what it is: a racial, nationalistic institution, authoritarian in nature and totalising in its attitude towards the state.
The position of public protector illustrates the case. It is not quite clear how Thuli Madonsela slipped through the ANC cracks.
Madonsela’s independence was startling for a party that prides itself on controlling all "levers of power". Nevertheless, for seven years she systematically dismantled the pretence that was the ANC’s feigned integrity and moral virtue. When she was done, its reputation lay in tatters.
In response, the ANC oozed hostility and contempt. Between 2014 and 2016, the party faithful ensured a steady stream of highly personalised and unsubstantiated vitriol flowed in her direction, aiming to denigrate her and delegitimise her findings.
We were told Madonsela was "a law unto herself" and a "populist", who showed "no respect for parliament". We were told she had "tarnished the image of our government" and was no more than a "clumsy clown, pseudo-politician, celebrity-wannabe-be, who is abusing her highly respected office". We were told she behaved like "a typical CIA agent" and a "drama queen", she was "economical with the truth" and made her investigations "personal". Her intention, supposedly, was to "discredit the ANC" — the ultimate sin. It was all just a "witch hunt".
Madonsela was, however, right; a moral beacon in a sea of immorality. And her findings were, repeatedly, confirmed by the courts. But because of our dynastic analysis, this was seen as a phenomenon particular to an epoch. It was the age of Zuma, and the demagogic disease he spread drove this kind of disdain. Today, in the age of Ramaphosa, the ANC is different.
Only it is not. Madonsela’s successor, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, is everything Madonsela was not.
Factions come and go. It can be corrupt or clean, efficient or incompetent. The party can decline and renew, but never fall
Her reports do violence to common sense. She oversteps her mark, there is evidence of political bias in many of her reports and, in a great many others, clear evidence of no evidence at all. Her grasp of the constitution and of her mandate is profoundly weak. Again, much of this has been confirmed by the courts. There is undoubtedly more to come on that front.
Yet Mkhwebane’s performance has not been met with any condemnation from the ANC. Quite the opposite: twice now, the party has defended her in parliament, against an opposition proposal that she be removed.
ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu described the first such move against Mkhwebane as a "witch hunt" and part of a "malicious DA campaign".
We are told she has "chosen to focus her attention on serving the masses of our people rather than solely conducting Hollywood-style investigations". Disagreement with her findings "does not render the incumbent unfit for office".
Last week, Mthembu again defended her, saying: "Anyone who says the public protector is no longer fit needs to prove to all of us that [she] is incompetent."
The truth is that the ANC has been entirely consistent, across epochs, with regard to the public protector. The party’s members demonstrate a consistent disregard for truth, evidence and argument, obsessed instead with the political impact the office has.
If it is bad for the ANC, the public protector is "a law unto herself"; if it is good for the party, she is "serving the masses".
Between 2014 and 2016, many political analysts were outraged at the ANC’s behaviour. The organisation was damned on social media and condemned in editorials. This was the zeitgeist hard at work: the age of Zuma must end and the disease eradicated, so that the age of Ramaphosa might be born and the party saved.
But today the ANC’s defence of a public protector out of her depth and vilified by the courts does not receive the requisite condemnation. This is because the ANC has supposedly been "cleansed", even though its members remain the same and its impulses have not changed. The party’s allergy to independence persists.
Yet this is all masked by the advent of a new dawn, and the personality of the man in charge. The Ramaphosa epoch means the party’s morality has been restored, and all its positions are viewed through a new lens — one that sees only the best intentions.
In this way, the dynasty retains its immunity to critical interrogation. One thing becomes two, each interpreted differently, but nevertheless, fundamentally the same.
The only real cure for this kind of myopia is history and the passing of time. There will come a moment, perhaps in 50 years, when we flip open a history book and look at the period from 1994 to 2018.
The book will care nothing for epochs. The story it will tell will be of one beast with many heads. A beast that burnt everything it saw, that destroyed institutions and wealth, fattened itself on public resources and sought to snuff out independence.
You will wonder, on reading this story, why did no-one slay it? The answer is that they never saw the beast. They were too hypnotised by the eyes of the particular head they were staring into.
• Van Onselen is head of politics & governance at the SA Institute of Race Relations