For many, South Africa's anti-corruption chief restored a little faith

Lawyer Thuli Madonsela was appointed public protector seven years ago. As she steps down, her legacy has been to remind people that the young democracy still has institutions that work.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Supporters of outgoing South African Public Protector Thuli Madonsela rally outside her Pretoria offices ahead of her last media briefing as her term comes to an end, Oct. 14, 2016.

As South Africans prepared for the retirement of their highly celebrated anticorruption ombudsman Friday, few places captured the public’s admiration more succinctly than an ad for a popular local chicken joint.  

“Always the griller,” it read. “Never the chicken.”

The statement was apt. Seven years ago, when South African president Jacob Zuma appointed lawyer Thuli Madonsela to the post of public protector – which investigates government graft and fraud – he told her that her work would be to take on investigations without “fear or favor.”

But he surely did not anticipate how close to the bone his own advice would cut. Over the course of her tenure, which ends today, Madonsela relentlessly pursued cases against many of the country’s most powerful people – including, on multiple occasions, the president himself. 

In doing so, she became the face of the fight against government corruption here, a soft-spoken lawyer wielding the Constitution unflinchingly against its own leaders. But her role in contemporary South Africa has gone one step further than that, restoring for many here faith in an adolescent democracy that has in recent years seemed particularly prone to acting its age: insolent, reactionary, and secretive.

“As South Africans we tend to feel often that we’ve had the wind blown out of us,” says Sanusha Naidu, a political analyst at the Institute for Global Dialogue, a Pretoria-based think tank.

The rainbow nation of Nelson Mandela had once been the world’s moral weathervane, but the successive decades had revealed it to be something far more fallible, a young country steered by men and women whose visions of liberation were tangled up in their own visions of self-enrichment. (“I didn't join the struggle [against apartheid] to be poor,” Smuts Ngonyama, a national spokesman for the ruling African National Congress, declared famously in November 2004.) 

Madonsela’s tenure as public protector, however, had been a powerful reminder “that we still have institutions that work,” Ms. Naidu says.

Her quiet but forceful presence in the public arena (she often referred to her office’s work as “whispering truth to power”) was for many a welcome antithesis to a flood of high-level corruption scandals that rained down on the country during her tenure – and in some cases their direct antidote.

Her office directed the president to pay back millions of dollars in taxpayer money spent on upgrades to his personal residence, took to task the head of the state broadcaster for faking his educational credentials, and got a police commissioner sacked for his role in a crooked property deal.  Up until the final hours of her term, indeed, she was pursuing a highly anticipated investigation into political interference by wealthy business associates of the president. (The president successfully petitioned a court Friday to delay the release of her preliminary report). 

In response to her work, Madonsela faced repeated and vicious attacks against both her office and her character, including a number of death threats.

But that ire has rarely seemed to visibly shake her.

“Even the most benevolent of governments have within them the propensity for human failings, and I think that’s what’s happened – those human failings have surfaced,” Madonsela recently told reporters, including the Monitor’s correspondent. But “within the frailty of humanity, we are bulletproof,” she said.

A democracy, she noted, was far bigger than the people steering it at any given moment.   

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Thuli Madonsela stepped down Oct. 14 after seven years as South Africa's public protector, a position from which she took on powerful political figures and interests.

Madonsela was not South Africa’s first public protector, an institution created by South Africa’s 1996 Constitution to help “safeguard …democracy.” But her two predecessors were not household names, nor did they pursue the kind of high-profile cases that have become Madonsela’s trademark. 

“I don’t think there’s even a comparison,” says Divya Singh, executive director of Global Ethics Southern Africa, a research network. “She raised the role and function of the public protector quantumly. People are now aware of that person and will continue to expect and demand something significant of them.”

Although Madonsela will be remembered most for her dramatic confrontations in the halls of power, however, she says the most rewarding part of her job has been representing ordinary citizens swindled by the state, who she calls her “Gogo Dlaminis” (a South African parlance roughly equivalent to “Grandma Joneses”).

She recalled a particular case in which two “shriveled elderly men, barely able to speak English” had approached her office claiming they hadn’t been paid for a job their company was contracted to do for their local government. Their financial loss had been crippling – the business had shuttered and one man now faced losing his home. Madonsela’s office set up a conciliation meeting, and by the end of it, the government had agreed to pay the money it owed.

“That’s when I realized the power of the public protector,” she says. And her legacy, she hopes, would be to that kind of South African, “men and women who have no means to hire a lawyer and no ability to understand the court procedures – being enabled by [the public protector’s] ability to mediate the power imbalances [and] get substantive justice from the system.”

Like all black South Africans, Madonsela is personally and intimately familiar with those power imbalances. She grew up in Johannesburg’s Soweto township, the child of an electrician and a maid, and cut her teeth as an activist advising the country’s black trade unionist movement in the 1980s. When she was appointed public protector in 2009, she made history as the first woman to occupy the role. 

“She made what could have been a disadvantage into an advantage by allowing people to underestimate her,” says Judy Dlamini, a leading businesswoman and author of a forthcoming book on female leaders in the country. “She let people relax their guard and by the time they’d seen what she could do, it was too late to turn her back, she had already made her inroads.”

Madonsela hands over the office Friday to another woman, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, an immigration law expert and former analyst for the State Security Agency. Madonsela has promised she will take some time off before deciding her next professional move, though those close to her say she is unlikely to sit still for long. (She has already devoted herself, for instance, to a massive fundraising campaign to provide scholarships for poor university students).

For now, however, many South Africans will continue to keep pace with their former public protector on Twitter, where Madonsela treats her half-million followers to a regular stream of jaunty life advice and 140-character nuggets of wisdom.

“Hope,” she wrote recently, “is that little spark that gives you faith in the possibility of a future that seems unattainable.”  

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