High court judges are normally cautious in the language they use, so when Judge John Murphy strongly chided Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane this week, it was hard to ignore.
Murphy said Mhkwebane had a “dismissive and procedurally unfair approach to important matters” and added that this would tarnish not only her reputation but “damage the legitimacy of the office”.
He also criticised her “superficial reasoning and erroneous findings” on the Reserve Bank’s mandate, findings which damaged the country’s economy by triggering a fall in the rand and causing more warnings from financial ratings agencies about South Africa’s investment status.
Most telling, though, was his observation that the public protector risked being accused of “hypocrisy and incompetence” if she did not hold herself to an equal or higher standard of legality than those subject to her writ.
While these strong words do not constitute a reason to remove Mkhwebane from office, they constitute a serious shot across her bow.
They are a clear warning to her – and those many believe to be her political masters – that the rule of law still packs a considerable punch in South Africa. And that is the silver lining in the dark cloud of corruption and state capture.