She walks into the room with great confidence, wearing a full black suit. Although she is on holiday, she has made time to meet FORBES WOMAN AFRICA – that is just the type of person she is. She reaches out her hand, introduces herself and apologizes for being late. It is hard to believe that this poised figure is Thuli Madonsela, whose name is being kicked around the political scene like an empty tin can.
The fight between her and the South Africa government is all about Nkandla – the private home of South African President Jacob Zuma. It sits on a vast amount of land and cost over R200 million ($18.3 million) of, reportedly, taxpayers’ money to upgrade security. The president claims to have taken out a R800,000 ($73,200) loan for the purposes of the renovations. Besides the thatched huts built for his family and the beautiful landscape of KwaZulu-Natal province, one of its features is a so-called ‘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, Thuli 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maladministration is an enemy because your ability to govern, or the authority people give you to govern, is withdrawn one piece at a time if there is maladministration.”
It all 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’ Ethnics Act, accusing him of using money to which he was not entitled. 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 provided by several ministers, some of whom were also under investigation. Her team began asking harder questions, which raised 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].”
The ministers and security cluster opposing the investigation took Madonsela to court on the charge that the investigation would compromise the security of the president. Meanwhile, in December 2013, the 12,000-page provisional Nkandla report was published on the Mail and Guardian. Madonsela, a member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), was accused of being underhanded. Some called her a heroine, while ANC loyalists hissed that she was a traitor.
At the time of writing, Madonsela could not comment on the findings of the final report. President Zuma was presented the findings in two capacities, as president of the country and the accused.
But there is more to her job than what appears in the media.
“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 put Madonsela in the public eye. Many people expect her to be a loud and aggressive woman but are surprised by her soft-spoken nature.
“Some man once saw me and he seemed almost disappointed in meeting me, we were doing a walkabout in 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 is not flexing her muscles, she enjoys reading women’s magazines and listening to classical music. At home, she jokingly admits her children often remind her that she is not the ‘PP’, but simply a mom. She never fears for her safety or that of her children saying that, “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?”
Looking back, Madonsela has few regrets but there are things she would do differently with the Nkandla report.
“I should never have given the ministers a provisional report with the findings. And my team warned me against it because you are giving a provisional report for security filtering to someone who is one of the investigated…”
After her term in office, Madonsela has set her sights on writing another couple of hundred pages.
“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.”
Madonsela also wants to go back to the bar, this time as an advocate, where she will continue her fight against injustice. Clearly we haven’t heard the last of Madonsela.