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Meet Thuli Madonsela — South Africa's conscience

As South Africa's Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela has faced down death threats and smear campaigns to expose wrong-doing at the highest levels of her country's government. Along the way, she has made some powerful enemies, who have accused her of everything from being a CIA spy to having a God complex. She has just completed her seven-year term.
South African Public Protector Thuli Madonsela speaks during an interview with AFP about her fight against corruption, the South African Constitution and her plans after her mandate as the Public Protector at the Public Protector House in Pretoria. (STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

For the last seven years, Thuli Madonsela has been giving government watchdogs around the world a master class in how to fight corruption. 

As South Africa's Public Protector, she has faced down death threats and smear campaigns to expose wrongdoing at the highest levels of her country's government. She has made some very powerful enemies in the process, who accuse her of everything from being a CIA spy to having a God complex.

The wrongdoers know the truth. I have found out myself that the governing party knew that what I was saying all along was true...[The general secretary of the A.N.C.] said that many times you saved us from ourselves.- Thuli Madonsela

She finished her seven-year term in October. During that time, Madonsela and her staff exposed wrongdoing by cabinet ministers and police chiefs — even by her own president, Jacob Zuma. 

South African President Jacob Zuma gestures as he answers questions about government expenditure on his private residence, during a session of questions at the South African parliament in Cape Town on August 6, 2015. (RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2014, her office released a report showing that President Zuma had used millions of dollars of public money to make upgrades to his private residence — including a swimming pool and an amphitheatre. In her final report as Public Protector, she recommended that he be officially investigated for corruption because of his relationship with one of the country's most powerful business families. 

President Zuma has since faced a growing chorus of calls to step down, even from members of his own cabinet. In November, he survived a no confidence vote. 

Madonsela grew up in a working-class family in the Soweto township, and went on to become part of the legal team that drafted the 1996 constitution. In 2014, Time Magazine included her on its list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Last month, she received the Frederik Willem de Klerk Goodwill award, the Forbes African Person of The Year Award and the German African Foundation Award.

The Sunday Edition reached Madonsela at Harvard University. As a fellow in the university's Advanced Leadership Initiative, she is exploring new ways for legal systems to promote social justice and eradicate poverty, both in South Africa and around the world. 

This picture taken on December 4, 2013 shows South Africa's Public Protector Thuli Madonsela looking on while addressing a briefing on Nkandla in Pretoria. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

This is a partial transcript that has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the longer interview, click 'play' above. 

MICHAEL ENRIGHT: You were part of the team that drafted the constitution for the new South Africa 20 years ago. Did you think at the time that one day you might wind up running the office of the Public Protector and becoming a fierce critic of the government of the day?

THULI MADONSELA: No, I didn't. Which obviously was wrong, because President Nelson Mandela did say that even the most benevolent of governments have within them propensities for human failings.

When you found yourself as the Public Protector, what impelled you to become a critic of the government? What was it in your personality that gave you the strength to do it?

It was the constitutional dream — a society where everyone's potential is freed and life improved. At the core of that society is a state that is accountable and transparent, that operates with integrity at all times, and is responsive.

President Zuma himself — in my first meeting with him in my official capacity — said that I must operate without fear or favour or prejudice, and that it had been of comfort to him that the Public Protector was not concerned about his power base. The Public Protector was only concerned about the facts and the law, and my team and I therefore did just the same.

It was always our understanding that by protecting the people, we were actually protecting constitutional democracy. Because if this institution makes promises it can't keep, trust will be eroded, and people will stop believing in institutions of democracy and start resorting to what the Chief Justice of South Africa refers to as "self-help." That would be terrorism, rioting and anything that is outside the law and organized politics.

Clearly, those aspirations that you propounded to the president didn't find favour with Mr. Zuma, did they?

Initially they did. In the first five years of my holding office as the Public Protector, President Zuma praised everything I did and implemented all of my findings and remedial action. We parted ways when I finally investigated his own excesses.

Thousands of South African opposition Economic Freedom Fighter(EFF) supporters, march towards the constitutional court where judges heard a case over public money spent on President Jacob Zuma's private house on February 09, 2016 in Johannesburg. (JOHN WESSELS/AFP/Getty Images)

You've suggested that he should step down, that he should resign.

I didn't really say that. I said it's up to President Zuma. We all exercise public power at the will of the people and if it reaches a point where our incumbency is more of a hindrance than an enabler, it is up to us to make a decision about what's best for the nation.

Was it around this time that you received death threats, and the smear campaign?

Well, the death threats started after the Nkandla report. It started during that investigation, because I was asked to stop the investigation. And more recently, yes, there were death threats when I started the investigation on state capture.

More than 1,000 people join religious leaders, on a march called " Procession of Witness" in defence of the role of the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela (not visible), in uncovering corruption, as well as protesting violence, and profiteering by people in business and politics, on April 19, 2014, through the centre of Cape Town. (RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images)

I assume that when you became Public Protector, that you quit your job at the CIA, did you?

[Laughing] Well, I suppose on that note, though, they did say that I had 15 million U.S. dollars in my CIA account in the Caymans. They really should give me that money. They can't just insult me for that. At the very least I should get the money, then.

Did people actually believe those charges?

No. They did hire people to create a blog and a Twitter account that was peddling those lies, but they didn't hire very smart people, because my CIA card was the same photograph as the one on my Public Protector card. And my name as a spy was Thuli Madonsela. Even my e-mail account was ThuliMadonsela@gmail, and that made the CIA a very stupid organization.

I want to talk about your background. Years ago, I covered the uprising in Soweto, and it was horrific. You lived through that, in Soweto township. Tell me the impact of all of that on you as a young woman.

I would say that was my awakening in terms of consciousness. I was aware that apartheid was oppressive, but I think the 1976 events put everything into perspective.

They had events at a church next to my house, and a lot of public meetings took place there, that conscience-tized us about oppression, and about what we need to do to end oppression, and about the role played by Mandela...and all of the other stalwarts that were playing a role in liberating South Africa.

Demonstrators in the streets during the Soweto uprising, South Africa, 21st June 1976. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But did your family convey to you any sense of optimism that things would change, or was there a feeling that this desperation that you saw around you in Soweto was going to continue?

My father was an eternal optimist, and he had so much faith in Nelson Mandela, who was on Robben Island at the time. I also came into contact with Helen Joseph. These are people who had gone through the darkness of apartheid, but they still believed that we would be liberated in our lifetime.

What drew you to study the law?

A sense of wanting to see justice. I remember very well — in applying for a scholarship to study law, I said I wanted to have an opportunity to use the law to end oppression and to ensure justice.

I understand that in 1994 you were offered a scholarship at Harvard, and you turned it down.

That's was really the grace and opportunity of drafting the Constitution. That was an opportunity that was going to come once in a lifetime. And I don't regret making that choice.

Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie raise fists upon Mandela's release from Victor Verster prison on February 11, 1990 in Paarl. (ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

Tell me about your relationship with President Mandela, because certainly in Canada and around the world, he is probably the most admired person of the 20th century. I just wonder how you came to work with him and his people, and what you felt about him.

My first introduction to President Nelson Mandela was through my father. He always spoke about this man, this black lawyer who worked tirelessly to liberate his people and who was now incarcerated.

When he was released, I had occasion to meet him as a civil servant. We were writing speeches and presenting documents for the cabinet and the constitution writing process. But I regret that I never really had an opportunity to have a nice cup of tea, you know, and to dig into his soul, really, his sense of humanity.

I would have loved to speak to him about why he was not resentful, why he didn't have a spirit of entitlement simply because he was at Robben Island, why he knew it was important that the ANC government does not turn into the same monster that it replaced.  I would have loved to ask him those questions.

I think a lot of people feel that with the death of Nelson Mandela, and the subsequent governments, Mbeki and Zuma and so on, that something has happened to South Africa. That the grand experiment and the great fruition that Mandela brought to it has gone south in some way. That things are not good in South Africa.

I don't begrudge people for reaching that conclusion, but I would say the situation is a little bit more optimistic. Yes, we've dropped some balls, and yes, some people in positions of authority have acted in a manner that makes people believe that they think they are above the law. But that's a minority. We still have an excellent constitution, we still have excellent institutions of democracy and governance.

During the last local government elections, people made it clear that they are increasingly not voting with their hearts and not voting in terms of history. They are increasingly voting according to who respects the constitution and who's prepared to deliver services according to the needs of the people. And I think increasingly, people are playing their part in holding people to account. They're increasingly not subcontracting their democracy to lawyers and politicians.

I think that what you just said is interesting, because you had all these powers as the Public Protector...and cabinet ministers and cops and other people had to resign. But your office also had some cases brought to you by ordinary people, by people who would stop you on the street and tell you their stories.

Absolutely. That's the beauty of that office, that although it says it's the Public Protector, it's really the public empowerer. Because in the process, it levels the playing field between the people and those they've entrusted with public power.

With the Public Protector, it strengthens constitutional democracy, because it brings people back into the equation. I'm not saying the courts are not important. I'm saying these institutions complement each other. And that's the genius of the architects of our democracy.

That's the genius. But it only works, it seems to me, if the office itself and the person occupying it is completely partisan-free. In other words, belongs to no party, really.

You're absolutely right. I had been a member of the ANC until the time I was appointed. But I think once you are appointed, you honestly have to tell yourself that from this moment onwards, I am totally, totally neutral, and whatever I do, it will be in pursuit of the truth, and in compliance with the constitution and the law.

And I can say without fear of being contradicted that my team and I were guided by the law, by the constitution and by the facts. We were transparent to each other and were transparent to the public.

Young people participate in a march to commemorate Youth Day in Soweto Township on June 16, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Youth Day commemorates the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976, when students gathered on the streets of Soweto to protest against Afrikaans being the language of instruction used in schools. The protest turned violent, resulting in the deaths of students and hundreds others in the riots that followed across South Africa. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

People want you to run for president. They want you to get involved in the day-to-day politics of your country. What do you say to them?

I don't want to be a politician, and I don't even think I have skills in that area. I work better in ensuring justice, or even advising the politicians to do the right thing. However, it is an interest of mine to get involved in politics, not as a public office bearer - to get involved in community politics, in civil society politics. Empowering, particularly, young people with leadership skills to engage meaningfully in democracy...firstly in becoming politicians themselves, but secondly in holding those they've entrusted with public power accountable.

When you look at your country now, and think about its future, as clearly you do, what gives you hope?

Lots of things. I think what gives me the greatest hope is the spirit of young people in South Africa, the so-called millennials. They're not greedy. They are committed to social justice. Yes, they may have made a few mistakes, when it came to maybe using violence in order to be heard. But the core of what young people are doing, is to remind us of who we are.

Why did we take this journey as South Africans? And what did we sign up to become, what kind of South Africa do we want to become?

It's one that is inclusive. It's one that is socially just, and it's one where public power is exercised by the will of the people, and for the interest of the people. Young people give me the greatest of hope. The people of South Africa are such a resilient nation.

Outgoing South African Public Protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela checks documents among her final reports during her last press briefing before leaving office at the Public Protector headquarter on October 14, 2016 in Pretoria. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

And they've had to be, haven't they.

Well, it's the bad news that goes to the media. The average South African, and the average civil servant, does the right thing and tries to make sure that people get the service they deserve.

We wouldn't have functioned as the Public Protector of South Africa if it wasn't for whistleblowers inside the system who firstly, blew the whistle to the media, and secondly, who assisted us when we were doing those investigations. Before we went for cell phone or bank records, some civil servant, some honest human being, would have told us, you need to look for this.

Last week you were in Panama for a conference on anti-corruption. What advice would you give ombudsmen and government watchdogs and whistleblowers around the world? When it seems to them that they can't root out corruption, that they can't correct the system...their friends turn against them, they're the subject of smears. What would you tell them as to why they should keep going?

I would say it's worth it. Fighting corruption is worth it. Sometimes you don't see the difference you're making. Sometimes you see that it's a drop in the ocean, but the ocean itself is created by a multitude of drops and, just, you need patience. You need to work with the people.

The other thing that anti-corruption agents need to know is that the wrongdoers know the truth. I have found out for myself that the governing party knew that what I was saying all along was true. It was said by the general secretary, who said we agreed with you privately, even though we disagreed with you in public, and that many times you saved us from ourselves. And my message to all public protector-like institutions, is that it's your job to make sure that you are your government's conscience, and at times it means you are saving people from themselves.

This is a partial transcript that has been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, click 'play' above.