Public protector Thuli Madonsela has come out in strong defence of the role investigative journalism plays in South Africa, calling it “one of the many important accountability mechanisms that helps to strengthen South Africa’s democracy”.
Advocate Madonsela was addressing delegates attending the Menell 13 Media Freedom Conference at the University of Johannesburg. Madonsela drew parallels between the work of her office and the role of the media in investigating stories that helped the public to have oversight over the people they have entrusted with power.
“We elect people to represent us and to exercise stewardship over our affairs, including our moneys and the rules that govern our relationships. We have to engage in a constant conversation amongst ourselves before we elect them and we have to engage in a constant conversation with them once they are in power, to the extent that they exercise that power on our behalf,” she said.
Madonsela highlighted some of the cases her office has dealt with that were brought to her attention by media investigations. These included the plight of communities that live in the vicinity of and were adversely affected by the construction of Nandoni Dam in Limpopo and the struggles of the community of Braamfischerville in Soweto, who lived in unhealthy surroundings due to a defective sewage system.
The public protector also mentioned the Against the Rules report, which focused on police office accommodation matters and On the Point of Tenders report, which followed an investigation into allegations of maladministration against the department of Roads and Transport in Limpopo.
Investigative journalism was also instrumental in helping to highlight improper conduct outside the state. This was seen in the bread price collusion scandal and a similar case involving the auction industry.
The Public Protector told the conference that her office benefits from investigative journalists by often requesting information that could be useful in her own investigations. She emphasised, however, that her office does not force journalists to share documents but requests for such information instead.
“We have authority to do that. In the Mail and Guardian case involving PetroSA, the court took a dim view over the fact that we did not ask the journalist [that wrote the story] if they had some information to share,” she explained.