Brickbats for Madonsela, bouquets for Phiyega

From the events of this week, it would seem that in the eyes of the ANC, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela can do no right and National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega can do no wrong. Madonsela is coming under intense pressure as she prepares to release her investigation report into the renovations at President Jacob Zuma's residence at Nkandla. Phiyega is under investigation by the police watchdog for allegedly defeating the ends of justice. The ANC has accused Madonsela of seeking to try Zuma in the court of public opinion, and on the same day rallied to protect Phiyega. Why the double standard?

Thuli Madonsela and Riah Phiyega have absolutely nothing in common but both are charged with protecting the South African public. Madonsela, South Africa's third Public Protector, is a human rights and constitutional lawyer with a passion for administrative justice.

Phiyega is South Africa's fifth National Police Commissioner. She is highly qualified in the field of social sciences and business administration, and spent most of her professional career in the corporate sector. She had no experience whatsoever in security and policing when she became the country's top cop in June 2012, but she was apparently appointed for her skills as an administrator.

The four years Madonsela has spent exposing maladministration, abuse of power and improper conduct in government has led her to become one of the country's most trusted and respected public figures. The 16 months Phiyega has been in charge of the South African Police Service has seen a succession of disasters, blunders and scandals.

While Madonsela is held in high regard in society, she has faced criticism of her work from senior ANC leaders who accuse her of seeking glory and publicity by targeting ANC high flyers. She has also had running battles with members of Parliament's justice and constitutional development portfolio committee, who accuse her of overstepping her mandate. She is constantly facing uphill battles to explain her work and her budgets. She has little political support and every nuance in her public statements comes under scrutiny.

Madonsela has recently come in for a lathering from MPs from across the political spectrum over her recommendation that Parliament decide the fate and take remedial action against Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) chairwoman Pansy Tlakula after she found her guilty of a conflict of interest.

A National Assembly ad hoc committee set up to consider the public protector's report has decided that it would be unlawful and unconstitutional for them to act against Tlakula, as this would amount to political interference in the affairs of the electoral body. MPs accused Madonsela of being naïve in her recommendations and the committee has referred the matter to the IEC, Department of Home Affairs, the National Treasury and the Auditor General.

But Madonsela is facing an even bigger wall of fire over her investigation into the R206-million security upgrade at President Jacob Zuma's private residence at Nkandla. She was asked to investigate the matter by Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko.

Madonsela has expressed her concerns publicly about where her reports involving the ethical conduct of the president should be submitted. She said she raised these concerns regarding the nonexistence of a competent authority to take action against the president when she first investigated Zuma for a breach of the Executive Ethics Code in 2010. At the time she recommended that Parliament amend the Executive Members Ethics Act to resolve the issue of which office or person to whom a report involving the ethical conduct of the president should be submitted.

Madonsela says she wrote to the Secretary of Cabinet a few weeks ago to enquire about the progress in amending the legislation in order to clarify where her Nkandla report should go. She says she has not yet received a response. Madonsela is obviously finicky about the procedure as she did not want to be hauled over the coals again after the criticism she received over the handling of IEC report. The Nkandla investigation is also the most high-stakes case she has undertaken and any slip-up over procedure will be used against her.

But the office of the ANC Chief Whip in Parliament Stone Sizani has accused Madonsela of seeking to "try the president and his executive in a court of public opinion".

"Her inferences in the media regarding lack of oversight mechanism over the president and regarding her predicament have unfairly projected the president and his executive as law unto themselves who do not want to be held accountable. There is no doubt that the President's dignity has been unfairly harmed by all these inferences in the media. This does not augur well for fairness and justice," Sizani's office said in a statement.

Speaking on PowerFM on Thursday evening, Sizani said Madonsela's views that there were no adequate oversight instruments in Parliament to deal with matters involving the president was a "DA perspective". He said he could not prejudge what Madonsela's motives were but it seemed as if she wanted to embarrass Zuma.

And yet, if there has been anyone who has been embarrassing Zuma and his government, it is Phiyega.

Under her watch, the police shot dead 34 mineworkers at Marikana and injured 78 others. They then proceeded to harass and torture some of the survivors. They were also caught torturing taxi driver Mido Macia who then died of his injuries. The police service was also shamed by bungling in the high-profile murder case of paralympian Oscar Pistorius.

Phiyega's performance at the Farlam Commission on Inquiry investigating the Marikana massacre was shocking and disgraceful. She was captured on camera giggling when grieving family members were overcome with emotion over the horrific manner the mineworkers were killed. Her testimony to the commission was a charade aimed at concealing the truth.

Two months ago, Phiyega was left humiliated when she announced the appointment of a new provincial commissioner for Gauteng and had to backpedal a few hours later when it emerged that her nominee Bethuel Mondli Zuma was facing criminal charges.

This week the police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid), confirmed it was investigating Phiyega for tipping off Western Cape police commissioner Arno Lamoer about a crime intelligence probe against him. Last week, Phiyega announced that she was placing acting crime intelligence head Major General Chris Ngcobo on special leave over alleged discrepancies in his qualifications.

Days later, it emerged that there were crime intelligence recordings of conversations between Phiyega and Lamoer in which she tipped him off that he was being investigated. Her motives for suspending Ngcobo appear suspect and the incident lifts the lid further on the turbulence in the police management and lack of confidence in Phiyega's leadership.

In the face of a public outcry and calls by the opposition for Phiyega's suspension, the ANC sprang to her defence. Sizani's office said in a statement that this was "a sensitive matter" which required "political circumspection and maturity".

"The call for the suspension or resignation of the national commissioner is plain politicking devoid of any sound factual foundation," the ANC statement read. It said it was pleased with the national commissioner's "dignified response and cooperation" with the Ipid investigation.

Concluding the statement, the ANC said: "The national commissioner has done an excellent work in uprooting wrongdoing and pursuing criminal elements within the police. We are hopeful that these allegations are not a backlash from those facing the heat of her anti-corruption drive."

It is astounding that the ANC can be so aggressive in its treatment of a person as trusted and respected by the people of South Africa as Madonsela is, while being so tolerant of Phiyega's clumsy, unprofessional and ill-informed conduct. Madonsela's good work should be a triumph of the ANC government and its commitment to upholding good governance and fighting corruption. It is not as if Madonsela gets any morbid pleasure from exposing the misdemeanours of others. And it is clear that the Nkandla investigation is weighing heavily on her.

Yet instead of providing support for her work of maintaining the integrity of the government and health of our democracy, the ANC treats her as an enemy and questions her motives.

On the other hand, the person who is constantly bringing the ANC government into disrepute is treated with kid gloves and given political protection. Shortly after Phiyega's blunder over the Gauteng police commissioner appointment, Zuma said at a meeting with editors that he thought she was "competent" and "absolutely wonderful".

Sizani's praise of Phiyega this week in the face of serious allegations of defeating the ends of justice, which again call into question her suitability for the position of national police commissioner, shows that the ANC does not judge those who serve in public office through merit and good performance. Tony Yengeni, Gwen Ramokgopa, Angie Motshekga, Dina Pule, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, Bheki Cele, Humphrey Mmemezi, Lulu Xingwana, these names are but a beginning of a long list of the ruling party cadres who did not show merit and good performance - far from it. And yet they are embraced and remain in the fold.

Protecting and covering up the failings of those who are supposed to uphold the pillars of its government undermines the ANC itself. While the pool of goodwill that brought the party into power was indeed a massive one, it is also a finite reservoir.

Of the two women who have the responsibility to protect the South African public, only one takes the people she serves and who pay her salary seriously. The other is unworthy of such an important position of public service and trust.

This column appeared in Daily Maverick.