South Africa: Public Protector Blames All On Lack of Funds, Again

Public Protector (PP) Busisiwe Mkhwebane appeared to have one overriding concern when she appeared before Parliament's Justice and Correctional Services Committee to present her Annual Performance Plan (APP) in April.

She needs more money, she told the Committee. Morale was at an all-time low because staff was working under considerable pressure, and increases in remuneration and the provision of resources were urgently needed. She repeatedly made the point that without more money she could not meet her mandate.

For the Committee, however, the budget came quite low down on its list of priorities. Concerns about whether the PP met her constitutional mandate took the discussion well beyond funding shortages, which all government entities are currently having to deal with.

The Public Protector is an Office that belongs to the people of South Africa and they rely on it for protection.

Committee Chairperson Mathole Motshekga began the meeting by reminding the Public Protector that there were numerous public concerns which she needed to urgently address. An impression cannot be created amongst the public that officials - inclusive of Chapter 9 institutions ‑ are incapable of running government properly, he said. His office is inundated with public complaints that the Public Protector is not properly attending to their matters. The Committee respects the independence of her Office but at the same time she must remain accountable to the public.

While stressing that she was not on trial, Motshekga urged her to use the Committee meeting to clarify public concerns, pointing out that the Public Protector is an Office that belongs to the people of South Africa and they rely on it for protection. He said any negative aspersions or perceptions about the integrity of her Office must be fully dispelled.

Yet by the end of the meeting the Chairperson voiced a warning that lack of quality leadership leads to a breakdown in public trust in government. He added that the budget for service delivery at PPSA cannot be used up in judicial reviews in court for the Public Protector to continually defend herself personally against aspersions raised against her.

The Chairperson said this raised serious negative perceptions about the Public Protector's integrity and independence and such perceptions erode public confidence in her Office. He said he hoped this would be the last time that these perceptions would have to be raised.

The Public Protector's determined response was that PPSA aimed to support constitutional democracy in accordance with Mandela's legacy, but a lack of proper funding and capacity prevented the institution from fully achieving its mandate.

The meeting started off looking fairly promising. The PP did her best, starting her presentation with the Public Protector Strategic Vision 2023 and its eight pillars that seek to expand the reach of her office to grassroots communities, especially in the rural areas and farming communities. Her aim, she said, was empowerment of local citizens to act as their "own liberators".

She went on to outline an ambitious programme for her Office, with a target of 30 investigation reports per year; finalising 10 already underway; holding dialogues with organs of state; public outreach events and radio shows; and building relations with diverse ombudsmen. It was "an impact driven approach" which would realise the targets and goals of the National Development Plan (NDP). Everything that could be expected of a Public Protector was thrown in: there would be exposing of maladministration, being a catalyst for change, ubuntu, promoting and sustaining good governance, etc.

Her report stated: "We believe that through this approach, we will help the country get a step closer towards the realization of national targets such as addressing poor public services and improving good governance as spelt out in the National Development Plan."

As an APP it was impressive, except for one thing. It was not affordable and she should have known that given that her repeated requests for more funding, which been turned down.

The Acting Chief Financial Officer,. Nonhlanhla Dick, was given the task of presenting the budget report. Despite being young and new to the job, even the Chairperson commented that she gave a good presentation. But the figures did not all add up. In short, she could only conclude that a huge amount of the current PPSA structure remained unfunded.

For the record, the budget for the Public Protector of South Africa for 2018/19 is R320 million. Low staff morale notwithstanding - and they do work hard, there is a lot that requires investigation by the Public Protector ‑ approximately R250 million is spent on staff remuneration. That means about 80% of its budget goes on salaries, even after "PPSA reduced its personnel cost to R250 132 000 in 2018/19 by not renewing contracts of trainee investigators and interns that expired at the end of March 2018 and the freezing of vacant funded positions". That left R70 million for:

delivery of services to persons and institutions ‑ R58 million,

Public Protector services ‑ R139 million,

strengthening oversight and public complaint mechanisms ‑ R4.5 million.

From that point on the report began to look more like a wish list than a budget. The office has an establishment of 707 positions, of which only 372 are funded in the 2018/19 financial year. The office needed an additional R746,474,926 over the medium term to fully fund the organisational structure, she said. Add to that another R5,442,193 for "Realignment of salaries for admin personnel," by which she meant bonuses and increases to "avoid CCMA court battles" and "retention of highly skilled personnel".

The digitalised Case Management System - not yet functional and requiring R8million to get going - will need an additional R26,945,680 for support and maintenance during the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF).

Then of course there is the mounting cost of litigation involving the PP. It was stated as delicately as it could be in the report: "It is evident that the additional funding of R5 million per year allocated in the 2016 MTEC budget process is not sufficient since more cases are taken on review and appeal. An additional R24 million is required over the medium term to fund litigation costs."

The report also said the PPSA also needs more security in most of its provincial and regional offices, at a cost of approximately R12,800,000 in 2018/19, R3,304,600 in 2019/20 and R3,519,399 and 2020/21. There was more - updating the current video conferencing system; a new integrated telephone system; and "subject matter experts when executing complex investigations that requires special skills in certain areas. These include actuaries, procurement experts, forensic specialists, build environment specialists and IT specialists. The cost over the medium term are (sic) estimated to be R31,700,800."

Then there is "Consultant expenditure" which includes the fees of the Auditor General - which is the internal auditor - and Ngubane Consultants which is the external auditor and the use of the State Security Agency (SSA) services don't come cheap.

The unfortunate Ms Dick had to explain that so far, other than freezing three posts, the PPSA has tried to cut its budget by cancelling leases on motor vehicles and seeking cheaper means of transport, calling for a halt to the purchase of bottled water, and humbling itself by begging office space from other government entities. There was an idea about needing a dedicated building to be built for the PPSA as well as suitable office accommodation in provinces and regions, but that was not elaborated upon.

In short, an additional R250 million would be needed to fund the PPSA's normal operations for the year and a total of R870 million would be required for the entire Medium Term Expenditure Framework.

The Committee was having none of it. Gijimani Skosana (ANC) asked if the Public Protector's Office was aware that the country is facing an array of financial challenges and all institutions, including Chapter 9 institutions, are therefore under financial pressure.

PP assured the Committee that she is aware of the fiscal challenges facing the country. She was doing what she could to cut costs. The PPSA had taken a decision to summon public officials to the PPSA Office for investigation, rather than investigators travelling to their offices. She didn't say who paid the officials' travel costs.

The Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) had been approached to provide assistance in ameliorating the financial constraints of the institution and has agreed to assist in developing innovative strategies to develop an integrated structure for PPSA.

What followed was a hectic to and fro-ing that probably told a lot more about the APSA than her APP had intended. It is summarised for the reader in a Q&A format. Every effort has been made to ensure accuracy.

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