JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African President Cyril Ramaphosa won a court case against the anti-corruption watchdog on Thursday over a matter concerning ally Pravin Gordhan, ahead of a fresh battle over findings against the president himself.
A high court judge found that Ramaphosa had acted reasonably in not immediately disciplining Gordhan, the public enterprises minister, over a decision regarding the retirement of a tax official in 2010.
Thursday’s ruling was the third high-profile court defeat for Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane in as many weeks, potentially undermining the credibility of her investigations, including one into Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa secured an “interdict” from the court, meaning he does not have to implement disciplinary action against Gordhan while Gordhan appeals against the finding by Mkhwebane.
By targeting Ramaphosa and Gordhan, the president’s supporters say, Mkhwebane is acting as a proxy for a faction in the ruling African National Congress party that is aligned with former president Jacob Zuma and opposes Ramaphosa’s agenda.
Mkhwebane denies playing politics, saying she is simply holding senior officials to account.
Last week another ruling also spared Gordhan from disciplinary action while he appeals a different finding against him by Mkhwebane.
On Thursday the judge criticized Mkhwebane for again pushing for Gordhan to be disciplined before his appeal against the public protector’s findings could be heard.
“It is mind-boggling why, in this matter, the public protector did not even consent to at least ... have the remedial action stayed, pending finalization of the review application,” judge Letty Molopa-Sethosa said in delivering her ruling.
The Public Protector’s Head of Legal, Alfred Mhlongo, said the watchdog would consider the ruling and its options.
“The President of the Republic of South Africa owes an indispensable constitutional obligation to not only support but to also protect the independence, the dignity and the integrity of the Office of the Public Protector,” he told state broadcaster SABC.
Mkhwebane found in a separate investigation that Ramaphosa deliberately misled parliament over a 2017 donation to his campaign to lead the governing African National Congress party.
Ramaphosa has said he will urgently challenge the finding, which he says is flawed. But it is still a headache for a president who has staked his reputation on cleaning up deep-rooted corruption and reviving Africa’s most developed economy.
The public protector has authority enshrined in the constitution to investigate alleged wrongdoing by public officials and demand remedial action, and her binding rulings can have far-reaching consequences.
Calls for Mkhwebane’s removal — which can only be done by parliament — have gained momentum after the country’s top court ruled last month that her investigation methods were flawed and that she had been dishonest during litigation.
A South African parliamentary committee will discuss a request to look into Mkhwebane’s fitness to hold office, probably in early September. Police said on Wednesday they were investigating allegations against Mkhwebane of perjury and defeating the ends of justice.
Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Catherine Evans