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