The selection of a new public protector is something that should preoccupy the mind of any responsible South African.
Reports suggested yesterday that there were three candidates out of the 14 who were interviewed on Thursday said to be the “frontrunners”. The Sunday Times, however, provided compelling evidence that one of the three, former deputy public protector Mamiki Goodman, may be a serial liar. The other two, Judge Siraj Desai and Advocate Nonkosi Cetywayo, come with question marks of their own, particularly around their lack of bias in favour of the ANC.
The fact that Thuli Madonsela took office in 2009 with much the same doubt hanging over her does not mean that we should now be unconcerned if a card-carrying member of the ANC, as Cetywayo admitted she is, ultimately gets the nod from President Jacob Zuma and parliament.
There can be no doubt that the ANC could never have dreamt that Madonsela would pursue her mandate to protect the public and public money as single-mindedly as she has done. She is not the only “cadre” who showed admirable independence and dedication to her civic duties after being “deployed” to a position. It must also have come as a hugely unpleasant shock to President Zuma and his supporters when the then national director of public prosecutions, Mxolisi Nxasana suddenly developed an appetite to prosecute Zuma as part of his leadership role at the National Prosecuting Authority. After a protracted smear campaign against Nxasana, he was finally put to pasture last year with a more than R17 million golden handshake.
Madonsela, along with the judiciary, has been one of the institutions that has kept South Africa on track despite the many missteps that saw the country lurch from one scandal to the next. Under her, the powers and duties of the public protector became clearer.
Now, though, with the courts confirming that her office’s recommendations are binding, it means that whoever takes the mantle will do so with more power than Madonsela was confident of when she started.
That power in the wrong person’s hands could instantly turn the institution into a threat to democracy instead of a safeguard.
The price of freedom, indeed, remains eternal vigilance.