South Africa’s Public Protector: frequently asked questions

The Public Protector was set up in terms of South Africa’s Constitution to investigate complaints against government agencies or officials.

Public Protector House
The office of the The Public Protector is one of six Chapter 9 institutions, identified in the Constitution as “state institutions supporting constitutional democracy”. (Image: Corruption Watch)

Brand South Africa reporter

Find out all about South Africa’s Public Protector.

What is the Public Protector?

Public Protector was set up in terms of Chapter 9 of South Africa’s Constitution to investigate complaints against state agencies or officials. It is one of six Chapter 9 institutions, identified in the Constitution as “state institutions supporting constitutional democracy”.

What are the functions of the Public Protector?

According to Chapter 9 of the Constitution, the Public Protector has the power, as regulated by national legislation:

  • to investigate any conduct in state affairs, or in the public administration in any sphere of government, that is alleged or suspected to be improper or to result in any impropriety or prejudice
  • to report on that conduct
  • to take appropriate remedial action

What are the other Chapter 9 institutions?

The five other state institutions supporting constitutional democracy are:

What does the Public Protector investigate?

The Public Protector investigates alleged misconduct involving the state. This includes public officials at all levels, from central and provincial government to state departments, local authorities and state-owned enterprises.

Do other countries have a Public Protector?

Countries across the world have offices similar to the Public Protector, institutions that investigate and provide a check on improper government activity, in the interest of the citizenry. These are variously called the “ombudsman” or “people’s defender”.

Is the Public Protector independent?

Yes. According to the Constitution, the Public Protector and all other Chapter 9 institutions “are independent, and subject only to the Constitution and the law, and they must be impartial and must exercise their powers and perform their functions without fear, favour or prejudice”.

The Constitution goes on to say: “Other organs of state, through legislative and other measures, must assist and protect these institutions to ensure the independence, impartiality, dignity and effectiveness of these institutions. No person or organ of state may interfere with the functioning of these institutions.”

Who can complain to the Public Protector?

Anyone can complain to the Public Protector. The Constitution says: “The Public Protector must be accessible to all persons and communities.”

How many complaints does the Public Protector receive?

According to a parliamentary report released on 5 November 2013, the Public Protector received 37 770 complaints in the previous year — up more than 10 000 on the number of complaints registered in 2011-12. It takes from a couple hours to three months to resolve a single case, depending on its nature; the parliamentary report stated that 37% of cases were resolved in three months.

What happens after the Public Protector has investigated a complaint?

The Public Protector has been described as a referee, tasked with looking at all sides of a problem. If the complaint is justified, a solution is put forward, which may include recommending changes to the system.

The Public Protector can also report a matter to Parliament, which will then debate the matter and see to it that the recommendations are followed.

Are the Public Protector’s reports always released to the public?

According to the Constitution, “Any report issued by the Public Protector must be open to the public unless exceptional circumstances, to be determined in terms of national legislation, require that a report be kept confidential.”

Who appoints the Public Protector?

The Public Protector is appointed by the president on the recommendation of the National Assembly in terms of the Constitution for a non-renewable period of seven years.

Who is South Africa’s Public Protector?

Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane became South Africa’s fourth Public Protector in October 2016. She was appointed by President Jacob Zuma, after being recommended by a special parliamentary committee.

Mkhwebane is an advocate of the high court and a specialist in refugee and immigration law. She has held positions in the Department of Home Affairs and the South African embassy in the Republic of China. She previously also worked in the Office of the Public Protector as a senior investigator and an acting provincial director for Gauteng. Mkhwebane was also a senior researcher at the South African Human Rights Commission.

Mkhwebane replaced Advocate Thulisile Madonsela, who completed her term in October 2016. Madonsela replaced Advocate Lawrence Mushwana, who completed his seven-year term as Public Protector on 16 October 2009. South Africa’s first Public Protector, Advocate Selby Baqwa, served from 1995 to 2002.

What investigations and recommendations has the Public Protector made in the past?

Some notable decisions by South Africa’s Public Protector include:

  • Bheki Cele was fired as South Africa’s police chief in 2011 after an inquiry into allegations of misconduct in relation to the procurement of office headquarters for the South African Police Service. The Public Protector’s report found that the lease agreements were unlawful, invalid and “fatally flawed”.
  • In 2006, the Public Protector cleared then Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka after she used an air force plane to fly with her family and friends to the United Arab Emirates for a holiday. “It cannot be found that the deputy president acted improperly or that she failed to act in good faith,” the Public Protector said in a report at the time. “She was entitled, as anyone else in her similar position and status, to take her family, a friend and the children of her private secretary with her to the UAE and no one therefore benefited improperly from the trip.”
  • Following an investigation in 2004, 40 Members of Parliament from a number of different political parties were found to have illegally used parliamentary travel vouchers worth R18-million for their personal use.
  • Also in 2004, an investigation into claims that Ekurhuleni metro police chief Robert McBride was unsuitable for his post found that the appointment was proper, given that then national police commissioner Jackie Selebi had “waived the requirements that McBride had to be a member of the Metro police, and in respect of training”.

Reviewed 17 May 2016

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