South African President Jacob Zuma on Thursday named a new anti-corruption watchdog to succeed the highly respected ombudsman famously uncovered a multi-million dollar scandal surrounding his private home.
Zuma appointed Busisiwe Mkhwebane to replace Thuli Madonsela, whose non-renewable seven-year term expires this month.
Mkhwebane, 46, vowed that she would prioritise investigating issues surrounding the needs of the poor over state corruption, which has been at the forefront of Madonsela’s time in office.
The outgoing ombudswoman found in a 2014 report that Zuma had “unduly benefited” from the refurbishment of his Nkandla rural home — valued in 2014 at 216 million rand (then $24 million).
South Africa’s Constitutional Court ordered the president to pay back funds spent on non-security upgrades — including a chicken coop, swimming pool and amphitheatre — valued by the treasury at $542,000.
The Nkandla scandal has dogged Zuma’s presidency, becoming a symbol of alleged corruption and greed within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party and triggering several unsuccessful impeachment bids by the opposition.
Madonsela is currently looking into claims of what is described as “state capture” involving a politically-connected wealthy Indian migrant family, the Guptas.
On Thursday, Madonsela questioned Zuma over alleged misconduct including the accusations that he allowed the Gupta family to choose ministers.
According to a statement by the ombudsman’s office, Zuma met with Madonsela “as part of her investigation into the alleged involvement of the Gupta family in the dismissal and appointment of cabinet ministers and boards of directors of state owned enterprises”.
– ‘Possibly corrupt influence’ –
The meeting also discussed their “possibly corrupt influence in the award of state contracts and licences to companies linked to the family”.
The meeting which lasted four hours resolved that Zuma would be given a set of questions to answer through an affidavit, and the parties would meet again to discuss issues raised.
The statement said Zuma’s legal advisers had argued that the investigation be deferred to the incoming ombudswoman.
Under Madonsela, the post known as the Public Protector gained a reputation as a formidable corruption buster, handing down damning findings against the state and public companies.
But Mkhwebane, who starts work next week, said that while allegations of state corruption were important, her priority would be the poor.
“Which one is a matter of life and death. A person who is sitting without electricity, without hot water, children going to school without hot water, compared with the state capture,” Mkhwebane said in an interview with the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Cooperation.
Mkhwebane, a state security analyst with the country’s intelligence agency, beat dozens of other candidates nominated by the public, and then interviewed by lawmakers.
An advocate by training, Mkhwebane has previously held several high profile government posts.
All parties in parliament backed her nomination for the job, except the main opposition Democratic Party (DA), which questioned her credentials, calling her a spy because of her position as an immigration officer at South Africa’s embassy in China.