JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African minister Pravin Gordhan won a bid to avoid imminent disciplinary action on Monday after a court suspended orders from the public protector, in a relief for ally President Cyril Ramaphosa.
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, which include one into Ramaphosa himself.
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 any wrongdoing.
She had also instructed the country’s chief prosecutor and speaker of parliament to investigate Gordhan’s actions before Monday’s ruling.
Public Enterprises Minister Gordhan, who oversees efforts to fix struggling companies such as state power utility Eskom, applied for an urgent ruling to prevent all of these actions being taken against him while he sought a separate ruling setting aside the public protector’s findings.
“Gordhan will, if the suspension if not granted and the review is subsequently upheld, be seriously prejudiced,” High Court Judge Sulet Potterill said.
“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.”
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 radical opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, which joined the public protector in trying to have Gordhan’s application for the urgent ruling dismissed, said it would appeal the decision in the constitutional court.
“We believe that the interdict essentially shuts down what is a constitutionally created institution,” the party said in a statement.
Potterill said that her ruling did not weaken the public protector’s office, and said Gordhan’s criticism of Mkhwebane as “incompetent and irrational” had no influence on Monday’s judgment.
But the judge criticised the enforceability of Mkhwebane’s orders, including rulings which gave Ramaphosa 30 days to decide what action to take against Gordhan while also calling for the action to be taken within 30 days.
“Much of the orders are vague, contradictory, and/or nonsensical,” Potterill said.
Supporters of Ramaphosa accuse Mkhwebane of acting as a proxy for a faction of the governing African National Congress (ANC) party that is aligned with former president Jacob Zuma, which she denies.
Mkhwebane has also found in a separate investigation that Ramaphosa deliberately misled parliament over a 2017 donation to his campaign for the governing African National Congress party.
Ramaphosa has said he will urgently challenge the finding, which he says is flawed yet 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.
Opposition party the Democratic Alliance has requested the speaker of parliament to allow deliberations on Mkhwebane’s fitness to hold office.
The public protector’s finding that Gordhan violated the constitution was 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 EFF, who seized on Mkhwebane’s report to call for his removal.
Reporting by Alexander Winning and Alistair Smout; Editing by Alison Williams