Public Protector calls for tolerance of Ombudsman institutions
Democratic processes would be eroded if institutions such as the Public Protector looked the other way and pretended there were no problems in state affairs, delegates at the 10th World Conference of the International Ombudsman Institute in Wellington, New Zealand heard on Wednesday.
Presenting a paper on the role of the Ombudsman in promoting ethical governance and integrity in the public service, with a special focus on her own experiences in relation to holding leaders to account, Public Protector Adv. Thuli Madonsela said public confidence in such institutions would also be dealt a blow if their heads turned a blind eye on bad governance.
While emphasising that the majority of key public figures against whom she had previously made adverse findings accepted their fate ethically, the Public Protector told the conference about a few backlash cases her office has had to deal with after finding against some senior persons in government. A few “parochial-minded” leaders appeared to prefer that her office ignores that there were problems, she said.
“Some of the parochial-minded leaders have decided to retaliate by trying to foster a perception that my office is not above reproach and accordingly has no right to judge others,” the Public Protector said, adding that she had recently learned that a parliamentarian preferred she rather focus on governance matters within her office. “My office has an outward mandate and corporate governance is meant to be an enabler rather than the office’s focus. This is not to say my office is not answerable for its own governance and administrative arrangements. No person or office is above the law or the dictates of accountability for entrusted power.”
In her engagements with those entrusted with public power, she always highlighted the fact that her office would be a foe rather than a friend if it let those who exercised entrusted power think they were on the right track while they were actually headed for a cliff, the Public Protector said.
Sharing with her peers some of the challenges her office faced, the Public Protector referred to difficulties in getting information she required for investigations, particularly those relating to ethical or integrity violations. She said this happened despite extensive information sourcing powers including subpoena, search and seizure and contempt orders. Implementation of remedial action directed following investigations was a growing area of concern, the Public Protector said.
She emphasised that the 16 years of existence of the Public Protector, a South African version of an Ombudsman, had been primarily marked by positive developments. The office, said the Public Protector, had contributed to the transformation of the state from an insular apartheid to one more responsive to the people’s needs.
The Public Protector indicated that the governance situation was still a long way from the accountable, responsive and ethical state envisaged in the constitution. Singling out administrative justice and good stewardship in exercising control over state resources, the Public Protector told the conference that the Ombudsman institution had an important role to play as a pillar of public accountability.
She stated that now more than ever, where people were increasingly restless about state responsiveness and accountability, the Ombudsman was an important partner in the pursuit of public accountability and good governance. The four-yearly conference, which commenced on Tuesday and scheduled to run until Friday, is being held under the theme “Speaking Truth to Power – The Ombudsman in the 21st Century”.
It has seen Ombudsmen from several countries across the globe descending on the southwestern Pacific Ocean island to share experiences and good practices. Among the countries in attendance are USA, UK, Canada, Netherlands and Norway. African countries including Namibia, Zambia, Botswana, Ethiopia and Kenya are also represented. South Africa hosted the 7th chapter of the conference in Durban in 2000.
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