Virus restrictions give public protector a reprieve from impeachment threat

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.

Beleaguered public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane has been given a reprieve in her ongoing battle against possible impeachment — because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mkhwebane’s lawyers are seeking an urgent interdict to block National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise from proceeding with an inquiry into the public protector’s fitness to hold office, pending her challenge to that inquiry process.

The application, which is being opposed by Modise and the DA, was due to be argued on  Thursday and Friday.  

On Friday, Mkhwebane’s attorney Theo Seanego wrote to judge president John Hlophe to ask that the case be indefinitely postponed “due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent suspension of the business of the National Assembly until further notice, including the processing of the motion for the impeachment of the incumbent public protector”. 

Seanego said all the parties involved in this increasingly acrimonious case, which has seen both Mkhwebane and Modise seek personal costs orders against each other, had agreed to the indefinite postponement.

Mkhwebane launched her legal action after Modise granted a motion, by DA’s acting chief whip Natasha Mazzone, that initiated a process that could lead to her facing an inquiry to hold office, earlier this year.

The DA contends that the scathing court rulings given against Mkhwebane in the Reserve Bank and Estina Dairy Farm scam cases clearly demonstrate that she is incompetent, biased and dishonest.

Mkhwebane maintains that these rulings cannot be used as a basis for her removal from office and are merely the “opinions” of the judges involved.

But, after recently suffering a devastating defeat in her battle to defend her now discredited findings about President Cyril Ramaphosa’s election campaign funding, Mkhwebane would have arguably been on the back foot, should this inquiry process have proceeded now.

The proposed postponement of Mkhwebane’s case against Modise also comes as the Pretoria high court was on Monday due to rule on Sars commissioner Edward Kieswetter’s legal bid to block Mkhwebane from subpoenaing former President Jacob Zuma’s tax records.

Business Day understands that the handing down of the judgment will not be happening because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Kieswetter wants the high court to rule that the public protector’s subpoena powers do not extend to tax information, and maintains that Mkhwebane should approach the courts if she wishes to access such information.

Mkhwebane is adamant that her constitutional powers trump the provisions of the Tax Administration Act — and says the withholding of such information from her amounts to a violation of the constitution.

She says she needs access to Zuma’s tax information as part of an investigation into allegations that he received a R1m salary from a private security company run by his associate Roy Moodley in the first months of his presidency.

Mkhwebane’s lawyers are understood to have requested that the ruling be e-mailed to all the parties involved, but it’s unclear at this stage as to whether that will happen.