Search for Madonsela suc­ces­sor grips SA

Lesotho Times - - Africa -

JO­HAN­NES­BURG — In a coun­try that loves its re­al­ity shows, a very pub­lic com­pe­ti­tion is at­tract­ing record au­di­ences. It does not in­volve a wed­ding or a singing child; there is no danc­ing and no mas­cara. There is, how­ever, a celebrity: Thuli Madonsela.

Appointed as South Africa’s con­sti­tu­tion­ally man­dated pub­lic om­buds­man — of­fi­cially known as the pub­lic pro­tec­tor — in 2009, Ms Madonsela has be­come one of the coun­try’s best loved and most ad­mired fig­ures. But her seven-year non-re­new­able term will ex­pire within weeks, and the South African par­lia­ment will choose her re­place­ment next week. The search for can­di­dates has gripped the na­tion.

Par­lia­men­tary hear­ings have re­ceived blan­ket cov­er­age. Sup­posed rev­e­la­tions about those hop­ing to re­place Ms Madonsela have made front pages. “Who will pro­tect us?” ran one head­line in the Sun­day Times news­pa­per.

Es­tab­lished at the end of the apartheid era by South Africa’s new con­sti­tu­tion, the role of pub­lic pro­tec­tor car­ries ex­ten­sive pow­ers to hold politi­cians, of­fi­cials and oth­ers to ac­count on be­half of the weak, poor, ig­no­rant or sim­ply an­gry.

Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts in South Africa, where elected and un­elected of­fi­cials are rou­tinely ac­cused of cor­rup­tion and other abuses, say the ap­point­ment is one of the most im­por­tant de­ci­sions that MPS make.

“The stakes are re­ally very high. It is the per­son who fills the of­fice which is im­por­tant, not the of­fice it­self,” said Gareth Evans, a gov­er­nance ex­pert at the In­sti­tute for Se­cu­rity Stud­ies in Pre­to­ria.

Pene­lope An­drews, a re­spected South African le­gal scholar, de­scribed the of­fice of the pub­lic pro­tec­tor as “the barom­e­ter of the state of South Africa’s con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy”.

Com­men­ta­tors point out that the of­fice is one of the few that com­mands pub­lic con­fi­dence, and it is seen as in­de­pen­dent of the rul­ing African Na­tional Congress.

The longlist of can­di­dates in­cluded Ms Madonsela’s deputy, two high court judges, a 77year old-lawyer and am­a­teur body­builder, a pros­e­cu­tor and an ac­tivist. The list has now been whit­tled down to five.

Who­ever takes up the post will have a hard act to fol­low. Face­book fan pages call Ms Madonsela the new Nel­son Man­dela and there have been wide­spread calls for her to stand for pres­i­dent. She has re­ceived dozens of awards from around the world.

So softly spo­ken that at press con­fer­ences re­porters crowd the front-row seats to bet­ter hear her, Ms Madonsela has shown ex­tra­or­di­nary, some say fool­hardy, com­mit­ment to her brief to in­ves­ti­gate gov­ern­ment mis­con­duct.

Her high­est-pro­file in­ves­ti­ga­tion was into state ex­pen­di­ture on Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s home. Un­der im­mense pres­sure from the rul­ing African Na­tional Congress (ANC) and the gov­ern­ment, Ms Madonsela found that pub­lic funds had been mis­used. She read her en­tire 448-page re­port aloud in a tele­vised press con­fer­ence, and her con­clu­sions sparked a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis, pit­ting her of­fice against that of the pres­i­dent. She won.

There has been abuse – one ANC of­fi­cial ac­cused Ms Madonsela of be­ing a US spy — and even death threats. Ms Madonsela re­mained un­fazed through it all, though she ad­mits now that “the pol­i­tics” was the most chal­leng­ing part of her job.

“There were smear cam­paigns, start­ing from 2011, but it was not a sys­temic, struc­tural thing. It was odd­balls,” she said in an in­ter­view with the Guardian this sum­mer. One re­cent in­quiry fo­cuses on al­le­ga­tions of im­proper re­la­tions be­tween the pres­i­dent and the Gupta fam­ily, who are among South Africa’s wealth­i­est busi­ness­men. Both Zuma and the Gup­tas deny any wrong­do­ing or im­pro­pri­ety.

Such highly sen­si­tive on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions ex­plain some of the in­tense in­ter­est in the post among South Africa’s po­lit­i­cal elite – and among a pub­lic that, as demon­strated in mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions this month, in­creas­ingly views the ANC as cor­rupt and in­com­pe­tent. The new of­fice holder can­not sim­ply close the in­quiry, but can soft-pedal it.

“We have seen it re­peat­edly over the years. It’s very easy to un­der­mine an in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” said Evans.

Many have won­dered at the source of Ms Madonsela’s steely de­ter­mi­na­tion. She grew up in a small home with­out wa­ter or elec­tric­ity in the Jo­han­nes­burg town­ship of Soweto dur­ing some of the dark­est days of apartheid, sleep­ing on the floor of the fam­ily’s tiny kitchen with six si­b­lings.

She won bur­saries to fund her school­ing and de­fied her fa­ther to study law at a top univer­sity. In 1994 she turned down a schol­ar­ship at Har­vard to help draft South Africa’s new con­sti­tu­tion, which is ad­mired around the world for its lib­eral prin­ci­ples. She then worked in the jus­tice depart­ment, be­fore set­ting up her own le­gal firm spe­cial­is­ing in hu­man rights, gen­der and con­sti­tu­tional law.

Ms Madonsela re­mem­bers how Zuma told her to “show no fear or favour” when she was appointed, and de­scribed to her how pre­vi­ous pub­lic pro­tec­tors had helped him be­fore he be­came pres­i­dent.

She re­signed her long­stand­ing ANC mem­ber­ship to avoid any con­flicts of in­ter­est, and found a friend who was chair of the elec­toral com­mis­sion “guilty of gross mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion”.

Then came the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into spend­ing on the pres­i­dent’s sprawl­ing home in ru­ral Kwazulu-na­tal. Zuma ini­tially re­fused Ms Madonsela’s rec­om­men­da­tion that he pay back part of the cash, but later agreed to do so.

THULI Madonsela’s re­place­ment will have a hard act to fol­low.

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