Thuli Madonsela: The woman who defied political loyalty to protect the nation

Metji Makgoba pays homage to South Africa’s Thuli Madonsela, the third public protector in the nation’s history and the first woman to hold the post.

As advocate Thuli Madonsela’s term as Public Protector draws to an end, one remembers President Jacob Zuma’s wise and prophetic words when he announced her appointment in 2009.

“Madonsela will need to ensure that this office continues to be accessible to ordinary citizens and undertakes its work without fear or favour,” Zuma said at the time.

Makhadzi, as she calls herself, heeded Zuma’s counsel. She discharged her responsibility with distinction by holding the powerful to account.

Over time, Madonsela became the voice of the voiceless. Despite her attempts, she has not really ensured that every public official respects the law because impunity continues, but she certainly kept the law in their faces.

The world took notice.

Time magazine recognised her contribution to good governance and named her among the 100 most influential people in the world in 2014. The magazine noted, “As South Africa’s Public Protector, with her ability to speak truth to power and to address corruption in high places, Madonsela has been outstanding.”

Among the accolades she received, which include over 40 local and global awards, the Public Protector won the Sydney and Felicia Kentridge Award from the General Bar Council of South Africa and Transparency International’s Integrity award for 2014.

Madonsela is one of few leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) who did not use their political and struggle credentials for personal aggrandisement – a recurring trend in the ANC. As Former ANC deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, once told the Business Day, it would have been a “constant battle” to have some ANC leaders “operate on the basis of the constitution.”

She put in the interests of the nation ahead of her own. This included forfeiting a Harvard scholarship to focus on her role as a technical adviser in the Constitutional Assembly, and helping draft the historic constitution that paved the way for the democratic South Africa.

“I was particularly concerned about the ordinary administrative wrongs against ordinary people,” she once told the New York Times.

But this did not come cheap. She was called a sell-out and a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) spy by those who felt that her growing power to burst corruption put their unethical deals in jeopardy.”We believe she is an agent of the CIA,” Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Kebby Maphatsoe, once said.

Maphatsoe was not alone in discrediting the Public Protector. ANC leaders and other prominent politicians, including cabinet ministers Lindiwe Sisulu, Fikile Mbalula, and Nosiviwe-Mapisa-Nqakula, as well as ANC Deputy Secretary-General Jesse Duarte, former ANC Chief Whips Stone Sizani, and Mathole Motshekga, have all sharply criticised the Public Protector’s work, Some even insulted her personally, accusing her of having a political agenda.

“I was sad that people would stoop that low. It was the saddest moment of my career. That is the ANC that I grew up loving,” she said of Maphatsoe’s remarks.

Although she found these remarks “painful”, Madonsela continued with her work, tough as it already was, administering law and justice, good governance and executive ethics with aplomb.

Madonsela’s professionalism and consistency earned her respect from her fierce detractors. Even the Economic Freedom Fighters leader, Julius Malema, once criticised Madonsela as a “tool used against black people”.

“I thought she was fearless, only to realise that she is a tool used by Afrikaner minorities to undermine the leadership of African masses,” mistakenly assessed Malema.

The Public Protector had declared as “unlawful and invalid” a multi-million contract awarded to On-Point Engineering – a company partly owned by Malema’s Ratanang Family Trust – by the Limpopo government in 2009. Malema later changed his tune and praised the Office of the Public Protector. He led the charge in Parliament to force Zuma to abide by the Public Protector’s remedial actions.

But Zuma would not budge, dismissing the Public Protector’s remedial actions as mere recommendations.
The EFF joined forces with the Democratic Alliance to take the president to court. “It is very clear we will never get an answer, Mr President. Let’s meet in court,” Malema told Zuma.

The matter reached the Constitutional Court and dealt a blow to the scandal-prone leader.

Reading the judgment, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said: “The president’s failure to comply with the remedial action of the Public Protector is inconsistent with the Constitution.”

Zuma later vaguely apologised for how the Nkandla matter was handled. “The matter has caused a lot of frustration and confusion for which I apologise on my behalf and on behalf of government,” he said.

Although ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe sought to appreciate the Public Protector’s work at her farewell party, her actions did not resemble what Zuma expects from his appointees.

She surprised the party’s establishment and interrupted Zuma’s networks of patronage with her courage and loyalty to the disempowered.

Let’s hope that the incoming public protector, advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane will value of the significance of her office.

People already fear that she might be a “Zuma appointee”. We all know that what it means to be a Zuma appointee. You will negotiate unethical deals for his friends and compromise your principles.

But let’s hope that like the Chief Justice, Mkhwebane will prove her naysayers wrong. Mogoeng was painted by the DA as a would-be Zuma puppet, but he understood his great responsibilities to our nation, and enriched our democracy.

Deputy Public Protector Kevin Malunga believes Madonsela’s greatest legacy does not rest on the Nkandla report, and the consequent court ruling against Zuma, but on “empowering the disempowered”.

Justice Malala, a leading political analyst, disagrees: “The Zuma case actually gave the office prominence and stature in the popular mind. It’s restored the idea that there’s someone fighting for the little man and woman in a village somewhere.”

Zuma’s name will remain salient because he is the country’s president, someone who should set an example by upholding and respecting the law of the land.

As Madonsela’s curtain falls on her sublime career, many South Africans will not only remember the high-profile political figures, names and organisations, which she investigated and helped bring to book, but how she managed to double the number of cases that her two predecessors investigated over the period of 14 years in just five years in office.

Metji Makgoba is a communication lecturer who holds degrees in media and communication studies from the University of Limpopo. He cut his professional teeth as a media intern with Host Broadcast Services, a Swiss company, and the University of Limpopo. He completed his Masters Degree in Media and PR at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom with distinction and is now a strong PhD candidate who will re-join the university as a commonwealth scholar. His MA thesis is titled “The sexualisation of politics: a critical discourse analysis of Zapiro’s political cartoons of president Jacob Zuma”.

Featured image via IOL

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