An uneasy quietness permeates the Public Protector’s office in Pretoria, South Africa. Where ever we go, including the bathroom, there’s an escort lurking, keys in hand.
The usher apologizes for the tight security.
The staff are clearly on high alert following shocking revelations of an assassination plot against the Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela.
When Madonsela appears, I expect the same tension but it immediately becomes clear that drama is around her, not within.
Yes, she is reserved but one could say it’s her personality. The advocate is dressed in figure-hugging blue jeans, and her Zen voice and sophisticated demeanour draws you in.
It’s not surprising that someone would threaten her life. After all, she has ruffled some very powerful feathers. No case is too big, small or dangerous for her. She was recently tipped off by a whistle-blower that a gang boss in Cape Town has paid three hit men R740,000 ($47,000) to kill her and make it seem like a car accident. Madonsela says she has no reason to doubt this and takes it very seriously.
“It’s because of my history with the whistle-blower that I have no reason to believe that she is not telling the truth. She says she saw the emails because she’s linked to the gangs from the community. She had given me information before that that turned out to be true,” Madonsela explains, no flicker of fear in her voice.
Her courage is understandable considering the women who have influenced her from a young age. Among them is anti-apartheid activist Victoria Mxenge, a lawyer who was a prominent member of the United Democratic Front. She became more politically active after the assassination of her husband Griffiths Mxenge.
“I never got to meet her but I went to her funeral. This is where I got to hear about this fearless lady who was a nurse and continued to study to become a lawyer. When her husband died, she didn’t shy away, she took over from where he’d left off and met the same violent death,” she explains.
Madonsela has an affinity with Victoria Mxenge. She too, could have been a nurse if her father had his way but she chose to study law.
“When I finished grade 10, my father arranged with a nursing sister who lived a block away from us to get a place for me at Baragwanath Hospital to study nursing. Everything had been arranged without consulting me. I was supposed to go there on a Monday, I refused,” she smiles.
Her father, who worked in the electrical industry, refused to part with a cent for her fees from that grade until university. Her mother, a domestic worker at the time, went all the way to Evelyn Baring High School in Swaziland to speak to her school principal to arrange her bursary. She finished high school through a church bursary and got a United Nations sponsorship for university.
“My father was the scariest man I had seen in my entire life. He had been brought up in the farms. He was really draconian. People were also scared of him but I think when you grow up as a child you eventually realize he’s not going to kill you,” she laughs.
“My first act of defiance was this one although it wasn’t meant to be an act of defiance, it was at the time when I had decided I wanted to be a lawyer, not a nurse.”
What influenced her to become a lawyer was the June 16 Soweto uprising; she was 15 at the time. She initially wanted to become a doctor as she was good at maths and science. People who saw her caring nature thought so too.
She chose law because she was convinced of its healing power. This was during apartheid when a lot of black people’s problems were with the law. They were being arrested because of the pass laws.
“Our cousins would be visiting us from other parts of the world and we would all be traumatized by the police knocking at night at our house and in the neighborhood. We would run around and hide in the cupboards and under the beds, some people would still be taken away. In fact, one of my cousins was taken away coming back from work. We heard they found him without a pass. There was a farm out there in Mpumalanga where they sent people to work for free. We never saw him we don’t know what happened to him till today.”
The advocate comes from humble beginnings in Dlamini, Soweto. Her father never saw the inside of a classroom but he taught himself to read and write. He pulled himself up by the bootstraps and bought a few cars which he used on weekends as long-distance taxis.
Her mother also had little education. She quit school and ran away from her adopted missionary family in pursuit of an alluring life she believed domestic workers had when she saw them in fancy clothes during December holidays. According to Madonsela, it’s a mistake she would later regret and wouldn’t allow her children to repeat.
“One thing she really drummed into our heads was education at the greatest level because she had the misfortune of meeting the child who was taken by the missionaries to fill her place. She had been educated, happily married and she was living a proper life,” she says.
Madonsela’s interest in fighting for people’s rights started early. When she was still studying in Swaziland, the late struggle veteran and African National Congress (ANC) stalwart Albertina Sisulu used to invite her over during the holidays. This is where she met her son, the late Zwelakhe Sisulu, who later introduced her to the National Union of Painters and Allied Workers Union (NUPAWU).
“He thought I could assist and they could use free labor but it was quite a lovely experience,” she chuckles.
Once she finished her degree, she worked with the union again as a legal advisor. Her first entry was to negotiate a transition from the pension fund to the provident fund. She then left and worked briefly in the construction industry as a legal advisor. From here, she joined the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) under the Center for Applied Legal Studies as a researcher and also teaching labor law and gender studies part-time. She was involved in the civic movement.
Madonsela was also involved in advising the ANC on the constitution. During the multi-party talks, they also assisted with research mostly on issues of equality, the bill of rights and land. She was also part of the 11 constitutional experts based in Cape Town.
Her knowledge of the constitution came in handy recently when opposition parties went to the Constitutional Court of South Africa asking the highest court in the land to clarify the powers of her office.
“It was important for me as a South African and as the leader of the team that whatever happens there, the powers of this office are properly understood. I think it was the right decision but there was so much attack that we should stay out of it and let other people define your powers, which was wrong. In fact, it’s normal that if litigation has got a touch on you that you’re included as a respondent,” explains Madonsela.
‘I Use Soft Power’
One would be forgiven for thinking the Public Protector’s office only pursues corruption cases. It is all that ever hits the front pages of newspapers. The bulk of her work comes from what she calls the Gogo (granny) Dlamini’s cases. This would be a pensioner whom the law has failed and has been sent from pillar to post.
“One of the cases I had to decide on was a rape victim who was sent from pillar to post for eight years and the case had been postponed more than 40 times. The sense as a team here is that it is not enough to say we’ve wronged you we will not do it again. Even if we don’t pay them enough money to rebuild their lives but there has to be a sense of compensation or consolation,” she says.
Regarding financial mismanagement, she believes for this democracy to thrive, the little money this country has must be used properly. If it’s not, there won’t be proper housing, quality health and education systems.
“As you can see now, 22 years into democracy, we’ve done well in that today is better than yesterday but we all agree that we could have done better. We had the means to do better but because of maladministration, corruption and misappropriation of public funds, the pace has been slower than it should have been,” says Madonsela.
What was to be the fight of her life, since she took office in 2009, was her investigation of South African President Jacob Zuma’s estimated R246 million (approx. $15.7 million as per current exchange rate) public spending on the security upgrades of his home in Nkandla in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. The president claims to have raised a loan of R800,000 ($51,000) for part of these renovations. Many would have shivered and shied away from such a delicate case but Madonsela rolled up her sleeves. She admits such cases need a fine balancing act.
“What I’ve done with all of these cases is to do expectations management, I use soft power. I think Nkandla is a sad case where soft power conversations didn’t work,” says Madonsela.
By ‘soft’, she means calling people to her office, make them tea and politely reminding them of what the law stipulates. She often points out these are the rules that they as government have made. She is only there to enforce the laws and in doing so has to be consistent. She says in most cases they understand that it’s not personal.
“I think with this case, we didn’t see it coming, we honestly thought that it was one of the easy ones where one can say yes we made a mistake but we can fix it. You can recall we didn’t even say that someone must decide how much must be paid, we said somebody must ‘advise’ on how much should be paid. It was crafted in such a way that compliance was made easy,” she adds.
“Regardless of what people think of me and my team, we do put ourselves in the shoes of people we judge. The story is not just about the money, it was a story about excesses, privileges for those who are employed by government and what we wanted was to stop the rot more than to recover that money. The idea was not to cripple the person because we know that the president is not a business person, he is an employee of the state, based on what he has disclosed, he doesn’t appear to be rich, so the idea was to pay what is reasonable.”
Sometimes when a big story breaks, her heart sinks and prays: ‘please God, not me’.
Madonsela was raised by spiritual parents. Her mother was brought up a 7th-day Adventist and her father a Methodist lay preacher.
“We grew up in an environment where we were expected to read the Bible every day, listen to short stories on the radio or religious services,” she explains.
She also drew lessons and inspiration from women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Oprah Winfrey, Priscilla Jana (a fearless lawyer), Charlotte Maxeke and Olive Schreiner.
“Olive Shreiner, she wasn’t a lawyer, but she is the person who made it possible for us women lawyers to become lawyers because initially the law society didn’t want us to become lawyers saying that we don’t have the necessary demeanour. Women are most suited for babies and cooking, this court decision was made in 1923.”
In 2014, TIME included her in its prestigious 100 Most Influential People list. In it, Lamido Sanusi, former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, called her “an inspirational example of what African public officers need to be”.
“When I was first told, I wasn’t even here, my team sent me an email to that effect and I thought ‘no, it’s a joke, it’s one of those 419 scams’. I honestly didn’t feel I was among the 100 influential people in the world,” says Madonsela.
Despite her hectic schedule and the expectations placed on her, she begins her day at 3AM with meditation. She spends her free time with her children or reading. Once a year, she goes to the cinema or theater. What she misses lately are her weekend walks with friends. Those have been suspended because of the alleged hit on her.
She is active on Twitter, mostly posting inspirational messages.
“When I meditate and find something inspirational that anchors my thoughts I share it with people. I find that they respond positively. They would say I spoke to what they were dealing with that day. I would share it because it talked to my soul and what I was struggling with on that morning.”
With her tenure in office coming to an end in September, some would like her to be the country’s president. What did she think of it?
“That is sweet of them but I don’t believe that if you’re good at one thing you’ll automatically be good in politics,” she answers.
Madonsela has a light side to her too. She has an eye for aesthetics and fashion. As a child, she used to draw patterns and sew her own clothes; this is the one thing she plans to return to when she leaves office and turn into a business.
She already has big plans. She will be going back full-time to the bar as an advocate in the high court, at the same time teaching law. She has been approached by several universities; she still needs to choose what will be best for her. She also plans to do civic work again and continue to play a part in expanding social justice, particularly for women and people with disabilities, whilst promoting racial reconciliation.
Next year, she will be writing two books, one her story, and another on administrative law, with the aim of making the work of the Public Protector better understood.