FEA­TURES How a quiet lawyer be­came South Africa’s cor­rup­tion-buster

Daily Trust - - GOLDEN HARVEST - By Krista Mahr

It’s not ev­ery day that a con­sti­tu­tional lawyer gets treated like a rock star. But at South African Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s State of the Union ad­dress, re­porters jos­tled to hear what Thulisile Madon­sela had to say about it, and on­look­ers took to Twit­ter to gush about her and her ca­nary-yel­low dress.

“Please, can we have pres­i­dent!” one pleaded.

Madon­sela is not just a lawyer. She is also South Africa’s public pro­tec­tor, an om­buds­man-like post that has come to sym­bol­ize for many a strug­gle for rule of law and bet­ter gov­er­nance in this young democ­racy.

Dur­ing her seven-year term, which ends in Oc­to­ber, the soft-spo­ken Madon­sela has en­dured per­sonal at­tacks and in­tim­i­da­tion as the public face of an of­fice in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­le­ga­tions of mis­con­duct, abuse of power and shoddy ad­min­is­tra­tion at ev­ery level of gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dency. But her tenac­ity and suc­cess have also re­stored a vi­tal sense of op­ti­mism in a coun­try that many worry has veered off course 22 years af­ter its first free elections.

“For the sys­tem to work, peo­ple have to be­lieve it works,” said Pierre de Vos, a pro­fes­sor of con­sti­tu­tional law at the Univer­sity of Cape Town. “She has made peo­ple be­lieve the public pro­tec­tor is some­one you can trust. In a coun­try where peo­ple are cyn­i­cal about in­sti­tu­tions, that’s a very big thing.”

Since the African Na­tional Congress sailed to power in the 1994 elections, the party that helped lib­er­ate South Africa from white mi­nor­ity rule and apartheid has re­tained deep voter loy­alty. But it is also show­ing signs of dis­ar­ray.

In­fight­ing has burst into the open, with vet­er­ans of the free­dom strug­gle openly call­ing for Zuma, the party leader, to step down. Politi­cians and busi­ness lead­ers have been ac­cused in re­cent months of try­ing to wield in­ap­pro­pri­ate in­flu­ence over the gov­ern­ment. With the econ­omy slow­ing and un­em­ploy­ment at 26.7 per­cent, the gap be­tween the po­lit­i­cal elite and poorer South Africans seems in­creas­ingly stark.

Amid these un­cer­tain­ties, Madon­sela’s will­ing­ness to stand up to stal­warts of the rul­ing class has raised the hopes of or­di­nary cit­i­zens. When Zuma ap­pointed her to the post — one of the “Chap­ter 9” in­sti­tu­tions writ­ten into the con­sti­tu­tion to safe­guard democ­racy — some won­dered whether she would be tough enough to wake up the hith­erto sleepy of­fice. The pow­er­ful soon found out.

“They didn’t bar­gain for what they were go­ing to be get­ting,” said David Lewis, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Cor­rup­tion Watch, a non­profit civil so­ci­ety group. her as “I think she’s the most highly re­garded public ser­vant in the coun­try.”

Madon­sela was born in 1962 in Soweto, out­side Johannesburg, 14 years be­fore the up­ris­ing in the town­ship that in­spired wide­spread re­sis­tance to the apartheid regime. Her mother was a do­mes­tic worker and her fa­ther a la­borer be­fore they both be­gan work­ing in the in­for­mal econ­omy. Her fa­ther was of­ten ha­rassed by po­lice for lack­ing a li­cense to run his busi­ness, she said in a 2014 in­ter­view with news chan­nel eNCA, and would reg­u­larly rep­re­sent him­self in court.

“I think that may have spiked my in­ter­est in the law,” she said.

Madon­sela be­came a suc­cess­ful lawyer, work­ing in trade unions and even­tu­ally for­go­ing a Har­vard schol­ar­ship to help draft South Africa’s post-apartheid con­sti­tu­tion. She worked in the Depart­ment of Jus­tice and was a com­mis­sioner at the South African Law Re­form Com­mis­sion be­fore be­ing ap­pointed public pro­tec­tor in 2009.

“I didn’t think I was good enough” for the job, she told eNCA.

Today Madon­sela, a sin­gle mother of two, is known widely as “Thuli” — a tes­ta­ment, per­haps, to her laid-back de­meanor. She speaks qui­etly and lis­tens care­fully. She is ex­ceed­ingly re­served but likes to tweet out in­spi­ra­tional ad­vice: “If you walk steadily on the path you hon­estly be­lieve is right, life will work with you.”

Most of the thou­sands of com­plaints her of­fice deals with are filed by or­di­nary peo­ple who, for in­stance, have not re­ceived their pen­sions on time or whose gov­ern­ment hous­ing is fall­ing apart. But the probe that has come to de­fine her ten­ure — and per­haps her ca­reer — is re­ferred to as Nkandla, the name of Zuma’s home­stead.

In 2014, the public pro­tec­tor is­sued a re­port find­ing that Zuma had “un­duly ben­e­fited” from public funds spent on non-se­cu­rity up­grades to the es­tate, and that he should pay back some of the money.

He did not do so, and Par­lia­ment later ab­solved him from pay­ing for the up­grades. Op­po­si­tion par­ties took the mat­ter to the na­tion’s high­est court, which ruled in March that Zuma had failed to uphold the con­sti­tu­tion by not heed­ing the re­port and that the public pro­tec­tor’s pow­ers were legally bind­ing.

Zuma has since apol­o­gized to the na­tion and said he will pay.

Af­ter the Nkandla re­port came out, “all hell broke loose,” Madon­sela said dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view. “It be­came, ‘Who are you to tell us what to do?’ ”

As the pow­ers of her of­fice came un­der scru­tiny, Madon­sela also came un­der per­sonal at­tack. A lo­cal news­pa­per re­ported that the deputy min­is­ter of de­fense and mil­i­tary vet­er­ans, Kebby Maphat­soe, sug­gested that Madon­sela had a “han­dler” and that the Chap­ter 9 in­sti­tu­tions had fallen un­der CIA in­flu­ence. Madon­sela’s of­fice de­manded — and got — an apol­ogy, although Maphat­soe said he had been “mis­un­der­stood.”

In April, Madon­sela has said, she re­ceived a tip from a po­lice in­for­mant that a gang boss in the south­ern part of the coun­try had been paid about $50,000 to ar­range a hit on her life. Her of­fice con­firmed that she is un­der po­lice pro­tec­tion.

Some crit­ics also ac­cuse her of seek­ing the me­dia lime­light and demon­strat­ing pro­fes­sional bias.

“I feel she has gone out of her way to ridicule and em­bar­rass the pres­i­dent,” said Khaya Xaba, spokesman for the Young Com­mu­nist League of South Africa. (The South African Com­mu­nist Party is part of the gov­ern­ing al­liance.)

For her part, Madon­sela says that while the gov­ern­ment some­times “drops the ball,” she doesn’t see South Africa as en­gaged in an en­trenched bat­tle over the rule of law.

“It’s not re­ally a cul­ture of im­punity,” she said. But she added, “What you’d like to see is a sit­u­a­tion where everyone is equal, everyone is sub­ject to the law, and everyone is ac­count­able for their ac­tions, whether they are on good terms with the pow­ers that be or on bad terms.”

The Con­sti­tu­tional Court’s March rul­ing on the Nkandla is­sue not only helped clar­ify the public pro­tec­tor’s pow­ers ,but also helped thaw the chill cre­ated by her re­fusal to back down. “Since then, we’ve had more dec­la­ra­tions of com­mit­ment to the con­sti­tu­tion ... more cor­dial­ity, even from Par­lia­ment,” Madon­sela said.

All of that could make her suc­ces­sor’s job eas­ier. But it is cru­cial to en­sure that per­son will also be some­body who does not wilt un­der pres­sure, ob­servers say.

A par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee has started look­ing for can­di­dates. The nom­i­na­tion process al­lows for public par­tic­i­pa­tion, and Cor­rup­tion Watch has been en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to pitch in.

Madon­sela says her staff is well pre­pared to carry on its work. Her deputy, Kevin Malunga, who has been nom­i­nated for the job, agreed. “This in­sti­tu­tion works as a team,” he said.

The ques­tion is, he said, “how do we keep that mo­men­tum?” Culled from wash­ing­ton­post.com

Thulisile Madon­sela “all hell broke loose when the Nkandla re­port came out”

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