Something strange happened in South African politics last week, which was not directly connected to the local government elections that have discombobulated the ruling party. For arguably the first time in 20 years a subcommittee of the legislature did its job without fear or favour, when interviews for the soon to be vacant post of public protector were conducted.

For far too many years those interviewed for public office have either gone through sweetheart questioning or have been subjected to a range of questions seemingly to have been designed to promote the image of the questioner, rather than probe the suitability of the interviewee.

Consequently, all manner of unsuitable choices have been made for key public appointments. Even the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) has hardly done itself credit with many of the interviews conducted of candidates for judicial office, with a consequence that some of great merit have failed to be appointed while others have gained the nod. This only confirms all the difficulties raised by the nongovernmental sector which concerns were so studiously given a wide berth during the interviews.

This did not happen with the candidates shortlisted by the committee for the post of public protector. There are a number of reasons the committee upheld the constitutional values of transparency and accountability in a manner rarely seen in this country. First, the chair, Dr Makhosi Khoza, presided in a most impressive and calm fashion, fair but firm to all candidates. Unfazed by the interventions of the hugely skilled Floyd Shivambu, she conducted proceedings in a manner that speaker Baleka Mbete is simply unable to emulate.

Second, thanks to the outgoing public protector, Thuli Madonsela, the prestige of this office is such that it arguably far exceeds that of even judicial office. Hence, the public is keenly interested in who will succeed Madonsela, realising the importance of a fiercely independent head of an institution that in the past seven years has proved critical to the vindication of the constitutional principle of accountability.

A third reason is of particular significance – the role of civil society, specifically Corruption Watch, in producing careful examinations of the candidates who were shortlisted. To her credit, Khoza recorded on more than one occasion the value of this work. It meant the members of the subcommittee could probe candidates on the veracity of their written applications and what they might have omitted, their temperament for the job, consistency of commitment to the vision of the Constitution, and hence whether each candidate was a fit and proper person to assume so vital a position.

The only serious criticism of the hearings was that they were conducted on one day, which hardly was conducive to a sustained level of inquiry that certainly required more than an hour per candidate.

This limitation aside, the hearings produced a public record which unquestionably limits the scope for the appointment of the kind of pro-executive hack, who sadly have been appointed to many key positions in the recent past. Given the propensity for litigation concerning public appointments such as the national director of public prosecutions and the chief operating officer of the SABC, it should be in the minds of those responsible for the appointment of the public protector that similar litigation may follow if a person is appointed who is not fit and proper.

In turn, this means candidates, who may have manifestly answered questions incorrectly with studied ambiguity, or even where they were not able to explain failures to disclose material information, could be the subject matter of a judicial hearing, were one of them to be appointed. This then narrows the field and expands the possibility of a worthy successor to Madonsela being appointed.

The role played by organisations such as Corruption Watch needs to be replicated for all key public appointments, particularly where a hearing is required as a precursor to an appointment. Take the appointment of judges by the JSC. It would greatly add to the process if similarly styled reports were made available to the JSC and then to the public.

In this case, information about a suitable temperament for judicial office, statements or publications of the candidate which could throw light on the kind of commitment the person has towards the nature of society envisaged in the Constitution, delays in the preparation of judgments as an acting judge or a permanent judge who seeks promotion, and the relationship with colleagues would contribute to a vastly improved process.

Of course, we may still find ourselves with a public protector that no one outside the ruling party would support but, by conducting hearings, with the full involvement of civil society, the political cost of this kind of appointment is decreased significantly.