Democracy


South Africa's Public Protector

The Public Protector was set up in terms of South Africa's Constitution to investigate complaints against government agencies or officials. Here's a comprehensive guide to how the process works, who and what the Public Protector can investigate, and how to lay a complaint.

The Public Protector receives and investigates complaints from the public against government agencies or officials, and has the power to recommend corrective action and to issue reports.

The Public Protector's services are free and available to all and, if you lay a complaint, your name will so far as possible be kept confidential.

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.

The Public Protector is subject only to the Constitution and the law and is independent of government and any political party. No person or organ of state may interfere with the functioning of the Public Protector's office.

How does the Public Protector work?

Anyone can complain to the Public Protector, who will then investigate the complaint. Think of the Public Protector as a referee who can look at all sides of a problem. If the Public Protector finds that your complaint is justified, he/she will do whatever possible to find a solution to the problem, which includes recommending changes to the system.

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

Investigations are mostly done informally, but the Public Protector can summons people to give evidence under oath or affirmation when this becomes necessary.

Complainants should not fear being victimized for "blowing the whistle" on corrupt or improper practices. All information that comes to Public Protector - including the identity of complainants and their sources of information - is treated as confidential.

Who can the Public Protector investigate?

The Public Protector is independent of government or political parties and can investigate:

  • Government at any level. This includes central and provincial government, state departments and local authorities.
  • Any person performing a public function. This includes anyone performing any official duty which affects South Africans, for example a state employee such as a policeman or an electoral officer.
  • Corporations or companies where the state is involved, for example Eskom and Telkom.
  • Statutory councils, for example the Human Sciences Research Council or the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

What can the Public Protector investigate?

The Public Protector is tasked with investigating improper prejudice suffered by the complainant or another person, for example as a result of:

  • Abuse of power.
  • Unfair, capricious, discourteous or other improper conduct.
  • Undue delay.
  • The violation of a human right.
  • Any other decision taken, or situation brought about, by the authorities.
  • Maladministration.
  • Dishonesty or improper dealings with respect to public money.
  • Improper enrichment.
  • Receipt of improper advantage.

What won't the Public Protector investigate?

Complaints outside of the Public Protector's mandate include:

  • Judgments by judges and magistrates, including sentences imposed by them.
  • Private acts by individuals.
  • Private companies.
  • Doctors or lawyers who are not working for the state.

However, the staff of the Public Protector can help by telling you where to complain or what to do in such cases.

In certain cases the Public Protector may refer you to a court of law where going to court is the best way to deal with the problem. Since the Public Protector does not act as anyone's legal representative, you will be referred to a lawyer if the matter must go to court.

How do I lay a complaint?

Should your complaint be about prejudice, you should try to solve the problem yourself before complaining to the Public Protector, for example by:

  • Speaking to the official(s) involved; or, if that does not help
  • Writing to the person in charge of the official(s), for example the head of the department, or the chief executive director, or the town clerk.

You could also consider approaching your Member of the National or Provincial Parliament. Only then, if you are still unable to solve the problem, should you make a submission to the Public Protector. You can do this by:

The following information should be contained in your submission:

  • The nature of your complaint.
  • The background to your complaint.
  • Reasons why you feel your complaint should be investigated by the Public Protector.
  • Steps you have taken to solve the problem yourself (if applicable). You should mention names of the officials you have been dealing with, on what dates, and what was said. Copies of any correspondence between you and the officials should be attached to your letter.
  • A telephone number where you can be contacted, if you have one.
  • In some instances the Public Protector may require a statement under oath before investigating.

If you are unsure whether your problem is something the Public Protector will investigate, or if you cannot write, you can phone the Public Protector's office on 0800 11 20 40 (toll free), or visit www.publicprotector.org for other numbers. There are trained professional staff members who will listen to your complaint, big or small, and conduct investigations.

In some cases the staff can help people to find quick solutions to their problems. The staff can also tell you where to complain if the Public Protector cannot help you.

You could also visit the office for an interview or a consultation, if you prefer. It is better to write first and ask for an interview in the letter.

SAinfo reporter

Reviewed: February 2014

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Public Protector Thuli Madonsela Thuli Madonsela, South Africa's Public Protector (Photo: GCIS)

Who is SA's Public Protector

Advocate Thulisile Madonsela became South Africa's third Public Protector in October 2009. She was appointed by President Jacob Zuma, after being recommended by a special parliamentary committee.

An advocate with extensive experience in constitutional, human rights and equality law, Madonsela was a full-time member of the South African Law Reform Commission before her appointment. As a member of a judicial transformation task team, Madonsela helped draft bills and a strategic plan for transforming the country's justice system and state legal services, as well as the Victim's Charter and gender and employment equity policy.

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.

South Africa's 'ombudsman'

During the multiparty negotiations that preceded South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, it was agreed that South Africa should have an ombudsman. Although "ombudsman" is a gender-neutral loan word from Swedish, it was agreed that South Africa's ombudsman should be given a more descriptive name, hence the adoption of "Public Protector".

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