When President Jacob Zuma appointed Thuli Madonsela as South Africa’s public protector in 2009, he could not have predicted what he was getting. Today the first woman to hold the role is revered by many as a crusader who boldly took on the most powerful office in the country – Zuma’s own presidency – in her dogged determination to root out corruption.
Along the way, Madonsela, 53, has revealed toughness while exuding an understated air. Dressed in a red top and black trousers, with her hair in a trademark bob, she greets me in her Pretoria office, which is littered with awards and accolades. She speaks in soft, measured tones but with confidence. “There are friends that no longer want to be seen to be associating with me,” she says. “When you meet them . . . we hug, we kiss, we speak nicely but for their own careers they would think that being seen to be too close to me might be a career-limiting move.”
Before Madonsela’s appointment, the public protector was a low-key office that many South Africans were unaware of. Now it is one of the most high-profile in the country. Since taking over, Madonsela, often referred to simply as Thuli, and her team have produced thousands of probes into state corruption or maladministration. Her investigations have led to the dismissal or resignation of Zuma’s national police chief, at least two of his cabinet ministers and the chairwoman of the electoral commission.
But by far her most explosive report was released in March last year. Titled “Secure in Comfort”, it listed the conclusions of an investigation into allegations that R246m (£11.5m) of state funds that were ostensibly for security upgrades at Zuma’s private Nkandla homestead had, in fact, been used for the president’s personal benefit. When Madonsela finally delivered the report before a battalion of media, she methodically read through the 443 pages, neither rushed, nor cowed – a drawn-out spectacle beamed live on TV across the nation.
It was classic Madonsela and the findings were damning. The investigation concluded that Zuma unduly benefited from the lavish upgrades and accused the scandal-prone president of “conduct . . . inconsistent with his office as a member of the cabinet”. It recommended that he reimburse taxpayers for a “reasonable part” of the costs of adding a visitors’ centre, cattle pen, chicken run, swimming pool (which the government insists is a source of water for firefighting) and amphitheatre to the residence.
Zuma has so far refused to repay a single rand and government officials insist the money was used only on security improvements befitting a president’s home. But “Nkandlagate” has become arguably the biggest scandal of the post-apartheid era and continues to dog the presidency as a symbol of the corruption and cronyism that Zuma’s detractors say has flourished under his leadership.
Since then, Madonsela has shown no sign of slowing down. This October, she joined a case filed at the constitutional court by the Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition party, in its efforts to force Zuma to pay back some of the money spent on Nkandla. The move drew criticism from Stone Sizani, the ruling African National Congress’s chief whip, who said the decision to “align herself with a political party” was ill-advised and “makes a mockery of the very principles she ought to uphold”. Madonsela shot back, saying she considered the statement an attack on her and “a veiled threat about her continued occupation of the position of public protector”.
Looking back on the past two years, she says, the experience has “toughened me but not hardened me. Being spiritually grounded allows me to forgive people. I have empathy for them and hope that they will have a Damascus experience because we are in the same boat, really.”
Indeed, throughout our interview, Madonsela looks for the positive in whichever topic she is discussing – from Zuma to the state of corruption. It is an attitude that may be explained by a tough, working-class upbringing in the Johannesburg township of Soweto during apartheid. The four-room family house had two bedrooms, with one rented out while Madonsela and her siblings – she is the middle one of seven children – slept on the kitchen floor. There was no electricity or piped water. The toilet was outside. “I still think to some extent it’s why I don’t like small houses,” she says.
She was sent to school in Swaziland, the small kingdom bordering South Africa where she had relatives. Her labourer father wanted her to become a nurse. Madonsela, however, had other ideas. “I said I would like to change unjust laws,” she recalls. “It’s post ’76 [the year of the student uprising in Soweto], and we had been through the pamphlets that were flying all over Soweto. We had been introduced to the life and work of people like Nelson Mandela, Bram Fischer and all of the lawyers who fought against injustice.” Her father was against higher education, believing you “get educated to speak Afrikaans and English in order to take instructions from them [white people]”. Madonsela, then about 15, refused to train as a nurse. Her father reacted by kicking her out of the house. “I was supposed to start on Monday. When I refused, then he stopped funding me and chased me away from home,” she says.
Nonetheless, she became the first of her family to go on to higher education, finishing school with help from her mother and from bursaries, and studying law at the University of Swaziland and then at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. When she was then offered a scholarship to study at Harvard, she turned it down. It was 1994, the year South Africa made the historic transition from white minority rule to democracy, and she chose instead to act as a technical adviser working on the drafting of the post-apartheid constitution. “Much as I have much respect for Harvard, Harvard will always be there but being part of the constitution-drafting process comes only once in a lifetime,” Madonsela says.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Madonsela worked at the justice department, reaching the rank of deputy director-general, before leaving and setting up her own company,Waweth Law and Policy Research Agency. In 2007, she was appointed to the South African Law Reform Commission. She was a member of the ANC – the party she often finds herself at loggerheads with today – until 2007, when she left to avoid potential conflicts of interest in her professional life.
Her role has certainly tested friendships. The chair of the electoral commission who resigned last year after Madonsela found her “guilty of gross maladministration” was a friend. That investigation related to alleged maladministration and corruption surrounding the lease of a new headquarters. The public protector’s report concluded that the process followed by Pansy Tlakula, the commission’s chair, in the procurement of the office was “grossly irregular”. It was one of the toughest decisions Madonsela had to make, “not because she was a friend, because she was somebody I regarded highly”.
Madonsela has been lauded in many quarters. “I think the kind of support and praise that we’ve received has overwhelmed me,” she says. “It is difficult . . . because I think if we were the only bastion against corruption we would fail. We survive because there’s a system.”
But she has also attracted powerful enemies. Since the release of the Nkandla report, she and her office have had to endure a backlash of criticism, insults and intimidation from members of the ruling ANC and Zuma supporters. Allegations appeared on a blog accusing her and opposition leaders of being CIA agents and were repeated by a deputy minister. Given the rawness of South Africa’s apartheid history, there are few more damning insults than being accused of being a spy. “I also didn’t expect the amount of vitriolic attacks that have crept in towards the end of my term,” she says with a smile, her hands clasped together. “Initially it caught me off guard and there was a lot of sadness on my part. I think for me, the lowest point in my life was the circulation of the spy allegation.”
But the intimidation has not dampened her pursuit of justice. When she’s particularly stressed, she begins the morning with gospel or classical music – Mozart, Beethoven, Handel – and is the single mother of two grown-up children, who, she says, have been bedrocks of support. “Sometimes I feel that’s unfair on them because a parent should be the one who is supporting, as opposed to the one who’s being cheered.”
They, and she, will get some respite when her seven-year term ends next year, after which she plans to take a year off to write a book about her experiences. Expect it to become a bestseller.
- Andrew England is the FT’s southern Africa bureau chief
(c) 2015 The Financial Times Ltd.