Once-Lauded South African Anti-Graft Body Falls From Grace

(Bloomberg) -- The South African agency that spearheaded investigations into corruption during former President Jacob Zuma’s scandal-marred administration is suffering a credibility crisis.

Since Busisiwe Mkhwebane, 49, took over the office, she’s been accused of bias by the High Court, and almost a third of the reports issued during her tenure are facing legal challenges. The ombudsman’s failing reputation has robbed Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, of a key weapon to fight graft and restore investor confidence in Africa’s most-industrialized economy. Only parliament has the power to remove her.

Once-Lauded South African Anti-Graft Body Falls From Grace

Former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela was a constant thorn in Zuma’s side, eventually helping to inject into everyday discourse the term “state capture,” a reference to his relationship with the Guptas, a wealthy family who were his friends and were in business with his son. Zuma and the Guptas have denied wrongdoing.

Since she stepped down in 2016, the ombudsman’s reputation has been in tatters, sparked by a messy battle with the central bank.

“The credibility of the office has plummeted and with it goes the body that has been the stand-out public agency in confronting corruption and maladministration through the years,” David Lewis, executive director of Johannesburg-based transparency group Corruption Watch, said Wednesday. “It’s a bit of a tragedy.”

Her office counters the criticism, saying at least some of it is aimed at undermining her investigations.

“All other Public Protectors have also been criticized heavily by the public, by politicians, and by the courts,” Oupa Segalwe, a spokesman from the Mkhwebane’s office, said in response to emailed questions. “It comes with the territory.”

The nation’s High Court questioned Mkhwebane’s ability to hold office after finding she was biased in a 2017 probe of CIEX consultancy’s report on the central bank’s bailout of Bankorp, which Absa Group Ltd. bought in 1992. She told Absa to repay 1.125 billion rand ($79.8 million). Mkhwebane didn’t understand “her constitutional duty to be impartial,” the court said, as it set aside her recommendations.

‘Into Disrepute’

As a “Chapter Nine” institution, the Public Protector gets a non-renewable seven-year term and can only be removed from office if the National Assembly finds -- through a two-thirds majority vote -- that she is guilty of misconduct, incapacity or incompetence. Parliament hasn’t agreed to an opposition-party motion to start that process.

“Her conduct has certainly brought the office into disrepute, and the fact that the courts have had to comment on her abilities and understanding of her mandate does raise concern,” said Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution.

Mkhwebane, a lawyer and former analyst at the state security agency, has also been accused of injecting herself into political spats between factions of the ruling African National Congress. Parliament rejected her recommendation that a constitutional amendment be considered to change the central bank’s mandate to focus more on the “socioeconomic well-being of the citizens” rather than protecting the value of the rand.

Traffic Conviction

She has had embarrassing and very public fall-outs with high-profile officials.

Reserve Bank Governor Lesetja Kganyago was scathing in his response to her demand to change the central bank’s mandate, saying she was biased and that her “clearly unlawful conduct exposes her own lack of competency.”

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni described her report on the head of the National Treasury failing to disclose a traffic conviction in his application for the job as “irrational.”

“Instead of having a supportive, robust public protector, we now have one that is erratic at best and apparently is ill-equipped to deal with the demands of the job, but also in certain circumstances seems to be towing a very direct political line,” Corruption Watch’s Lewis said.

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