The Tiger On The President’s Back

Published 9 years ago

For most of 2014, Thuli Madonsela’s name has been kicked around the political scene like a tin can.

The fight between her and the South African government is all about Nkandla – the private home of South African President Jacob Zuma that sits on a vast tract of land. It cost over R200 million ($18 million) of, supposedly, taxpayers’ money to renovate. The president claims to have taken out an R800,000 ($71,000) loan for the purposes of the renovations. Besides the thatched huts built for his family and the beautiful landscape of the KwaZulu-Natal province, its best feature, by far, is what has become known as the ‘fire pool’. It has been explained away by his spin doctors, for it is not a recreational swimming pool but a water reservoir in case of fire.

Who would be bold enough to investigate these allegations against the head of state? That woman is public protector Madonsela.


“I don’t see it as me versus the government, it’s my team versus maladministration. For any government, if they want to govern in perpetuity, maladministration is an enemy because your ability to govern, or the authority people give you to govern, is withdrawn one piece at a time if there is maladministration,” she says.

The investigation began in December 2011 when a citizen lodged a complaint to the public protector’s office regarding how the country was spending its money. A few months later, another citizen lodged a complaint against the president, under the Executive Members’ Ethics Act, accusing him of using money he was not entitled to. Madonsela had 30 days to respond.

“Firstly, when the complaint was made, I didn’t think that it was going against the president because procurement is not a presidential matter. So at no stage did I think there would be any direct involvement with the president.”

The public protector’s office compiled information from the ministers, some of whom were also under investigation. The investigation team began asking harder questions, which raised a few red flags.


“The minister of police said he was going to give us information, so we were expecting it. Then he said when he comes back from his honeymoon, he will give us the necessary information. When he came back he wrote us a letter saying that he doesn’t understand why we were doing this investigation because as ministers they have everything under control and they are investigating [the matter].”

“In reality most of the cases that take our time on a day-to-day basis are from ordinary people, who are just grappling with being denied one or another service. Usually people who are struggling with an ID or permanent residence, people who are struggling with a grant and also people who have been unfairly treated in employment situations in government and who can’t go to the CCMA, or can’t go to the public service commission, or who would go to those but the service processes take forever.”

The frenzy has thrust Madonsela in the public eye. Many people expect her to be a loud and aggressive woman.

“Some man once saw me and he seemed almost disappointed in meeting me, we were doing a walk about the mall and he said to me, ‘Oh aunty you’re just a little girl, I thought you were taller.’ Then I said to my team, ‘He always made me feel guilty that I’m not taller,’” she laughs.


In her spare time, when she’s not flexing her muscles, she enjoys reading magazines and listening to classical music. At home, she jokingly admits, her children often remind her that she is not the ‘PP’, but simply mom.

“I think other people fear for my family more than I do. My view on it, and this is the view my team takes, is that if anyone wanted to do anything wrong to me they would have done it at the early stages of this investigation. You don’t let the investigation complete and then you want to do something to someone because what would that achieve?”

After her term in office, Madonsela has set her sights on writing.

“When I finish, for a year or two, I would like to focus on writing, writing about the potential of this office [of the public protector], not just for South Africa, but for Africa and the world. It has enormous potential, but it’s not fully known, understood and exploited because it’s an office that has potential for transformative work.”