An established democratic state rarely has to depend on a single political actor for survival.
There are the stress-tested constitutional checks and balances. There are the codified rights of citizens and responsibilities of rulers. There is also a widely shared national commitment to political institutions that have been bedded down over centuries.
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 in turn, as necessary.
Alas, that 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 on whether Pravin Gordhan would survive in the job of finance minister, or succumb to the onslaught of the dark forces of state capture. In South Africa, we just don’t have a surfeit of good men and true. If Gordhan falls, the bridgehead will be taken by the barbarians.
Fortunately, however, it seems that there are a reassuring number of women 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, who is at the end of her seven-year term.
They are very big shoes for anyone to fill, especially someone who reputedly is close to President Jacob Zuma. This supposed closeness is the reason why the Democratic Alliance “reserved judgment”, as it put it, on Mkhwebane’s nomination. It had wanted Judge Sharise Weiner.
The Economic Freedom Fighters, however, were not put off by the rumours that Zuma wants Mkhwebane, with EFF leader Julius Malema saying that she’d be heading “a well-established institution, with independent investigators… And if she tries any shenanigans, the institution itself will expose her for who she is.”
The contribution that Madonsela has single-handedly made to the stature of that ombuds office is reflected in the immense interest there has been in the appointment of a successor.
In 2009, when Madonsela got the parliamentary nod, it was to a Protector’s office that was moribund. Her predecessor was ineffectual at best, at worst perceived to act in support of the government on anything but harmless bureaucratic snaffles that were too minor to cause any political waves.
Interest was so muted that initially too few candidates meeting the statutory requirements were nominated. The parliamentary committee had extended the process and re-advertise.
When it eventually got off the ground, the appointment process largely took place behind closed doors, with Madonsela eventually emerging as the unanimous recommendation of all the parties.
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 that the opposition members of the committee would resist having a political patsy foisted upon them. Similarly, the African National Congress members were resistant to another crusading Protector.
Madonsela had over the years upset a number carefully balanced ANC apple carts and had directly taken on Zuma, over the R240m of state funds that was spent on building his private home at 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, this time around. Desai put out all the right signals and in his interview harped on about his liberation and socialist credentials, as well as his disdain for the “white middle classes”.
He also more than once 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, following her crucifixion of the president in her report on Nkandla.
Desai’s efforts were in vain. The committee, under the impressive chairmanship of Makhosi Khoza, was committed to trying to get as close to a unanimous choice as possible and Desai 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, but he is unlikely to buck the recommendation of parliament.
In due course we will find out whether Mkhwebane is another Madonsela or just another ANC lackey. If it turns out that she lacks the courage and fortitude of her predecessor, South African 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 rises to the demands of an office that now has an elevated stature. That she is our next Horatius.
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