President Cyril Ramaphosa won a court battle against South Africa’s anti-corruption watchdog on Thursday over a case about the approval of early retirement benefits for a senior tax official.
It is the latest legal case that the country’s anti-graft ombudswoman, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, has lost in recent months against high profile government officials and a large corporation.
She is widely viewed by Ramaphosa’s supporters as a proxy in the ruling African National Congress faction battles.
The ANC is bitterly split between supporters of former president Jacob Zuma, who resigned last year amid graft allegations, and those backing Ramaphosa, who came to power vowing to fight corruption.
In a recent report, the ombudswoman, who probes public corruption and misconduct, said Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan had erroneously approved the tax officer’s pension benefits.
She ordered Ramaphosa to discipline his minister even as Gordhan is challenging her findings in court.
Ramaphosa approached the courts to block Mkhwebane from forcing him to discipline Gordhan until the minister’s appeal was concluded.
On Thursday a High court judge in the capital Pretoria, Lettie Molopa-Sethosa, criticised Mkhwebane for pushing Ramaphosa to discipline Gordhan.
The judge said it was “mind-boggling” that Mkhwebane did not await the finalisation of Gordhan’s appeal.
The president had “taken a sensible approach. He is not saying he will not take action,” judge Molopa-Sethosa said.
The ombudswoman is facing growing calls for her removal from office.
Last month another high court concluded that much of Mkhwebane’s remedial orders against Gordhan were “vague and nonsensical”.
Weeks earlier, the country’s apex court ruled that she had been “deceitful” and acted in “bad faith” in an investigation involving local bank Absa, whose predecessor Bankorp had received an illegal lifeline from the central bank during the apartheid years.
The latest adverse judgements have dealt a blow to the ombudswoman’s reputation, who is viewed as a Zuma ally.
Her predecessor, Thuli Madonsela, whose term expired in 2016, worked with vigour to increase public trust in the office.
This week the special police investigations unit, the Hawks, said they were investigating a number of allegations, including perjury, against Mkhwebane.
Parliament’s portfolio committee on justice will in September look into the fitness of Mkhwebane to hold office.
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