South African parliament starts process to remove watchdog head

FILE PHOTO: Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane listens during a briefing at Parliament in Cape Town

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa's parliament on Friday backed a request from the main opposition party to begin proceedings that could lead to the removal of the country's top anti-corruption official amid criticism of her record in office.

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane was appointed in 2016 after being plucked from relative obscurity by then-president Jacob Zuma. She has been widely criticised after losing several high-profile court judgements.

If successful, the Democratic Alliance's (DA) bid to remove Mkhwebane would mark the first time the head of a state body tasked with defending democracy has been removed by parliament since the ruling African National Congress took power inu 1994.

An independent panel will have 30 days to make a preliminary assessment of the DA request and make a recommendation on whether she should remain in office, parliament said in a statement.

Mkhwebane has not been formally informed about parliament's decision, her office said, adding that she had learned about it from media and would comment in "due course".

Welcoming parliament's decision, the DA said it had long held that Mkhwebane is not fit to hold the post of public protector, who is empowered to investigate alleged wrongdoing by public officials and to demand remedial action.

Last August, a court said an investigation conducted by the Public Protector's office had exhibited "gross negligence", and awarded a punitive cost order against Mkhwebane - the second time this has happened.

That decision heightened scrutiny of Mkhwebane.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, Zuma's successor, has also accused Mkhwebane of abusing her office after she said he was involved in serious misconduct linked to donations to his campaign for leadership of the ruling party.

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Gareth Jones)