An established democratic state rarely has to depend on a single political actor to keep it going. There are stress-tested constitutional checks and balances. So a mature democracy should never require, metaphorically speaking, a sole Horatius defending the Roman bridge against the enemy hordes.
Instead it has at hand legions of Horatiuses, each stepping forward as necessary. Alas, that’s not true of young democracies. Sometimes survival of the institution does depend on the actions of a single person.
Which is why the entire nation is this week obsessed with whether Pravin Gordhan will survive in the job of finance minister, or succumb to the dark forces of state capture. We just don’t have a surfeit of good men and if Gordhan falls, the bridgehead will have been taken by the barbarians.
Fortunately, however, it seems there are a reassuring number of women ready to pitch into the fray. The parliamentary appointment committee on Wednesday settled on Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane as their recommendation for the next public protector, to fill the shoes of Thuli Madonsela.
They are very big shoes to fill. The contribution that Madonsela has single-handedly made to the stature of that office is reflected in the immense public interest there has been in the appointment.
In 2009, when Madonsela got the parliamentary nod, it was to a protector’s office that was moribund. Her predecessor was ineffectual at best and at worst was perceived to act in support of the government. Interest was so muted that the parliamentary committee had to extend the selection process and re-advertise the position.
How different this time around. The interviews have been televised live and every aspect of every candidate has been dissected, analysed and commented on by thousands on social media, as well as by civil society organisations like Corruption Watch.
From the outset it was clear the opposition members of the committee would resist having a political patsy foisted upon them. Similarly, ANC members were resistant to a crusading protector. Madonsela has over the years upset a number of ANC apple carts and directly took on Zuma over Nkandla.
It was a battle that, aside from a steady stream of insults and abuse against Madonsela from senior figures in the ANC, led to threats against her life. Like Horatius, Madonsela never flinched and the role she has played in preserving our democracy is incalculable.
It was no secret that the ANC favoured Judge Siraj Desai, one of the five finalists. Desai put out all the right signals and articulated the mantra that the protector should not carry out the “agenda” of the political opposition.
This is an accusation that was often made by Zuma supporters of Madonsela. Desai’s efforts were in vain. He faced an implacable opposition coalition. The committee’s recommendation now goes to National Assembly, which will vote on it next week.
The final decision lies with the president. In due course we will find out whether Mkhwebane is another Madonsela or another ANC lackey. If it turns out that she does lack the courage and fortitude of her predecessor, our democracy will have taken a blow that while it will not incapacitate it, will undoubtedly weaken it.
But what one hopes for is that she is our next Horatius.