July 29, 2019 / 10:50 AM / a month ago

South African court suspends public protector's orders against Gordhan

JOHANNESBURG, July 29 (Reuters) - A South African court on Monday suspended the public protector’s orders for disciplinary action against Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, a relief for President Cyril Ramaphosa who is counting on Gordhan to revive struggling state firms.

The ruling is the second time in around a week that Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane has lost a high-profile case in court, potentially undermining the credibility of her investigations.

Mkhwebane, who investigates alleged wrongdoing by state officials, instructed Ramaphosa to take “appropriate disciplinary action” against Gordhan this month after finding that Gordhan had violated the constitution and an executive ethics code. He has denied wrongdoing.

She also instructed the country’s chief prosecutor and speaker of parliament to investigate Gordhan’s actions.

Gordhan, who oversees efforts to fix struggling companies such as state power utility Eskom, applied for an urgent ruling to prevent action being taken against him while he sought a separate ruling setting aside the public protector’s findings.

High Court Judge Sulet Potterill granted the ruling. The court also adjourned to decide whether the findings in Mkhwebane’s report should be set aside.

“It defies all logic to proceed with the execution of the remedial action when the report that is the basis for the remedial action is the subject of judicial review,” Potterill said.

The public protector’s spokesman, Oupa Segalwe, said Monday’s judgment was disappointing and that Mkhwebane would study it before “mapping the way forward”.

The public protector’s finding that Gordhan violated the constitution is based on the allegation that he exceeded his powers as tax commissioner a decade ago by setting up an investigative unit to crack down on the illegal economy.

Mkhwebane alleged that Gordhan had violated the executive ethics code by misleading parliament over a meeting where a member of the Gupta family, friends of former president Jacob Zuma, was present.

The Guptas were at the centre of an influence-peddling scandal during Zuma’s time in office, but they deny wrongdoing.

Gordhan has a number of political enemies, including in the radical opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, who seized on Mkhwebane’s report to call for his removal.

Lawyers for the EFF joined the public protector in trying to have Gordhan’s application for the urgent ruling dismissed.

Reporting by Alexander Winning and Alistair Smout; Editing by Alison Williams

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