Public Protector identifies sources of “confusion” over her office’s powers

Public Protector Adv. Thuli Madonsela has blamed the ongoing confusion on the powers of her office on the tendency to delink the office from other independent institutions established under Chapter 9 of the Constitution and the fact that the Public Protector Act is not in line with the Constitution.

Addressing law students at the University of Fort Hare in East London, Public Protector Madonsela said Section 181 of the Constitution provided generic powers that were applicable to all institutions referred to as Chapter Nines. These include, among others, her office, the Auditor-General (AG), the Human Rights Commission and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

Among other things, these generic provisions include that these institutions are independent and subject only to the Constitution and the law; they must be impartial and must exercise their powers and perform their functions without fear, favour or prejudice; and no person or organ of state may interfere with their functioning.

Public Protector Madonsela said the root cause of the confusion over the powers of her office was the penchant by critics to divorce the Section of the Constitution that makes these provisions from Section 182, which gives her office investigative, reporting and remedial powers.

“Once you take away the Public Protector from Section 181 and debate it in abstract with other ombudsman institutions, you have lost the plot,” she explained. “If you do not delink Section 181 from 182 you are not going to view the Public Protector’s powers differently from those of other institutions established under Chapter 9.”

Public Protector Madonsela argued that if Parliament could review the decisions of her office and substitute it with its own determinations, it would have to do the same about the determinations of the AG and the IEC, among others independent constitutional institutions.

“If you were to stretch this argument further, you could say that if the IEC makes a decision that [a political] party did something wrong and it must be excluded from the electoral process, the review institution will not be a court of law but Parliament, which will say ‘IEC you are wrong, the party stays and it will contest the elections because you are not a court of law’,” she said.

Public Protector Madonsela said views that suggested that Parliament or any other public functionary other than the courts could review the decisions of her office placed the office outside Section 181 of the Constitution.

The problem regarding the enforcement of her office’s remedies, she added, was exacerbated by the fact that the Public Protector Act was enacted in 1994, two years before the Constitution came into force. This was evident in that the Constitution gives her office the power to “take appropriate remedial action”, the wording that is not found in the Act. Instead, the Public Protector said, the provisions of the Act are similar to those found in the interim Constitution of 1993, which in turn are similar to those of the Office of the Ombudsman that existed during apartheid South Africa.

Public Protector Madonsela emphasised that, unlike a commission of inquiry, her office had original powers deriving from the Constitution. A commission of inquiry only got its powers from the executive and upon conclusion of its work, had to report to its power giver.

She noted that in his latest judgment on the DA vs SABC case, Western Cape High Court Judge Ashton Schippers, held that it was important that the confusion regarding the powers of her office be resolved and that the Supreme Court of Appeal should be the forum for that determination.

“My team and I share that values that this institution [the Public Protector] needs to provide an avenue for access to justice and if it can’t do that, then it has no place in the South African Constitution,” she said.

For more information, contact:
Oupa Segalwe
Acting Spokesperson
Public Protector South Africa
(012) 366 7035
072 264 3273

Published Date: 
Wednesday, May 27, 2015