Opening remarks by Public Protector Adv. Busisiwe Mkhwebane during a webinar on challenges facing female students at institutions of higher learning on August 31, 2020
Programme Facilitator, Mr. Charles Mohalaba;
Deputy Public Protector Adv. Kholeka Gcaleka;
Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Commission on Gender Equality, Ms. Marissa van Niekerk;
NSFAS Administrator, Mr. Randall Carolissen;
Lieutenant-General Tebello Mosikili;
Ladies and gentlemen
I am grateful to all of you for joining us on this webinar as we mark the last day of the month set aside for women.
On this month, the country takes time off to remember and celebrate the generation of women who were, in 1956, at the forefront of the fight against apartheid, not only confronting the challenges they faced as women but apartheid in its entirety as experienced by the black majority.
While I appreciate these kinds of discussions and the opportunities they present for the country to find solutions to the problems that have beset the status of women, I have been very vocal about the tendency to confine this important conversation to the month of August – my office included.
Please do not get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing wrong with dedicating the month to focus the nation’s attention on the issues concerning women. However, something is not right when society seemingly pretends that the issues of women can only take centre stage once a year during one out of 12 months.
This is the month during which we crunch the numbers, checking statistics on women representation in influential positions across the executive, the legislature, the judiciary and in listed companies.
It is during this month that we also start recounting the cases of women who have lost their lives to or survived Gender-Based Violence (GBV). We then call on law enforcement agencies, the victims and the perpetrators to this and that. From that moment, we park the issue until the next August. It has become more of a tick-box exercise that we do begrudgingly for compliance. I hope that I am wrong.
I think every day should be an opportunity to deal with women’s issues until such time society changes its posture towards this vulnerable group. I am on record indicating that our country is one of those that are despicably unfriendly towards women.
With that said, this webinar seeks to find ways of improving service delivery in respect of challenges faced by female students at institutions of higher learning.
It is important to lay the foundation by reminding all of us of the Public Protector’s constitutional mandate. This institution is established in terms of Section 181 of the Constitution as an independent body, with a duty to strengthen constitutional democracy.
It is independent and subject only to the Constitution and the law. It is impartial and must exercise its powers and perform its functions without fear, favour or prejudice.
The Constitution commands other organs of state to assist and protect this institution so as to ensure the institution’s independence, impartiality, dignity and effectiveness. In addition, the Constitution prohibits interference with the functioning of this institution by any person or organ of state.
Section 182 of the Constitution empowers this institution to investigate, report on and remedy any alleged or suspected improper or prejudicial conduct in state affairs or the public administration, in any sphere of government.
Just as court orders bind all persons to whom and organs of state to which they apply, the Public Protector’s remedial action is bindings unless set aside by a court of law.
This institution does not have the power to investigate court decisions. Neither does it have the power to investigate private companies or individuals. It must be accessible to all persons and communities.
Any report it issues following an investigation must be open to the public unless there are special circumstances that require that such a report be kept under wraps. Such grounds could be considerations of national security.
The Public Protector additional powers prescribed by national legislation such as the Public Protector Act, in terms of which the Public Protector is empowered to investigate undue delays in the delivery of public services; unfair, capricious or discourteous behaviour; abuse of power; abuse of state resources, dishonesty or improper dealings in respect of public money and improper enrichment.
We rely on the provisions of this law, for instance, in our investigation of several student allegations levelled against the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which I will touch on shortly.
We also have a corruption mandate in terms of the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act. When we investigate in terms of this law and establish evidence of corruption, which is a criminal offense, we defer to the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI), also known as the Hawks, to take the matter further and bring in the National Prosecution Authority (NPA).
For instance, should it be discovered that a decision of a functionary at the NSFAS was influenced in exchange for gratification of any sort, such evidence would be brought to the notice of the NPA to take the matter forward as a criminal case.
My office is also a safe haven for whistle-blowers under the Protected Disclosures Act. It is under this law that we cushion the heroes in government who blow the whistle on wrongdoing from suffering what is called occupation detriment, which could come in a form of retaliation or a backlash from those fingered in the wrongdoing.
We further have powers to enforce Executive Ethics under the Executive Members’ Ethics Act.
This office was always meant to provide a quick and easy access to justice for ordinary members of the public. This was in recognition of the reality that the alternative, which is litigation, is prohibitively expensive as the Constitutional Court noted.
The average person does not have the financial muscle to take the state to court when wrong by the bureaucracy. The state on the other hand has the pockets that run very deep and is not pressed for time.
This is why our services come free of charge. Unlike with the courts, you need not understand the law when you come to us. All you need is the knowledge that you have been wronged or robbed of what you are entitled to.
We have qualified and experienced investigators, most of who are lawyers. They will do all the legal research for you to determine which laws have been disregarded in the processes of denying your services or delaying the delivery of same to you.
Due to the current challenge of COVID-19, our services can only be accessed through email, website or telephone. Until further notice, all 18 of our offices across the country has suspended walk-ins.
Everything we do in the service of the people of South Africa is informed by an elaborate plan, which we call the Public Protector Vision 2023. In essence, the vision is about taking the services of this office to people at the grassroots such as you. This vision is underpinned by eight pillars, which relate to:
a) Enhancing access to our services;
b) Engaging communities in their mother tongues for effective communication;
c) Increasing our footprint;
d) Leveraging stakeholder relations to advance our interests though MOUs;
e) Projecting an image of a stronghold for the poor as we should be;
f) Ensuring that people are well-versed on their rights;
g) Persuading organs of state to have effective in-house complaints resolution means to offload some of the burden from our shoulders, which, as I said, was the focus of last year’s roadshow; and
h) Inspiring people to be their own liberators.
Coming back to the focus of this webinar, we have invited the NSFAS, the South African Police Service, the Gender Commission and Students Chapter of the Black Lawyers Association to help us tackle the challenges faced by young women on university campuses across the country.
This office receives a lot of complaints pertaining to alleged financial exclusion including delays by NSFAS to processes applications or release funds, medium of instruction in universities (language policy), pending court cases involving the #FeesMustFall activists and the safety of students on campuses, to mention but a few.
These are genuine concerns, which, if not attended to, could cause a lot of problems for us as a country. In recent years, we saw violent protests flaring up at various universities with infrastructure being destroyed.
While we understand that the torching of buildings, among other things, was done in protest in the face of injustices, we strongly discourage such behaviour as it results in the destruction of the much needed infrastructure and largely leads to regression.
The money that should be used to improve the lives of students on campus ends up being used to fix the destruction. However, peaceful protest coupled with the utilisation of complaints bodies on campus, at the department and eventually the Public Protector or other bodies such as the Human Rights Commission is the way to go.
We are hoping that all of the discussants will bring their different perspectives to the dialogue to that we can come up with everlasting solutions specifically in so far us the challenges concern young women in campuses and students in general.
I will now hand over to Mr. Mohalaba to facilitate the dialogue.
Adv. Busisiwe Mkhwebane
Public Protector of South Africa