Assignments involving government officials make me nervous. In fact, I would prefer not ever having to interview anyone in the governmental sphere, where players are notorious for their non-communicative approach, never mind their non-commitment to deadlines.
How do you knock a cynical journalist like me for six? You send them to interview the Public Protector. The office of Advocate Thuli Madonsela is highly efficient – no wonder this woman is considered a force to be reckoned with. She does not tolerate unprofessional behaviour of any kind, and those in her office know communication at all levels is not just expected, but ensured.
Requesting to interview her with all my preconceived notions in place, I could hardly believe it when I was not only granted the interview, but kept up to date with the process until we met only one week later – despite Madonsela being on leave and in the process of dealing with the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs minister Sicelo Shiceka saga.
Dressed in a modest black suit, Madonsela is refreshingly honest and open as we sit down in a restaurant in Pretoria. “I don’t think my office is any different from any other. There is a reasonable standard of what is professional conduct, and that is followed – always,” she says frankly. Madonsela clearly enjoys what she does. “I love my office and I particularly love the administrative justice part of what it achieves. My team and I get so much joy when we see justice happen for one person. That is no doubt why I do it.”
The moral backbone of the South African government and keeper of the nation’s ethics, Madonsela is perceived as a fearless woman who does not back down to anyone. “I don’t know so much; it is not just me,” she says modestly. “We are a team and when we take on a case, we all sit down and decide what is the best course to take in terms of finding out the truth, and then we do it.” She says the approach is simple. “We don’t complicate matters and we don’t look at who is involved – the process is always the same. We are all equal under the law.”
The narrative in the Public Protector’s office, she says, is to determine what happened and, within a regulatory framework, determine what should have happened. “So it really does not matter if it is Minister Shiceka or Mr N to us – they are all the same and we follow the same script. “And, by working this way, my team is able to work fairly independently, knowing that, ultimately, I am held accountable for the result. I think one of the reasons for the office’s success is that we are consistent and don’t make exceptions.” Madonsela knows she is not always popular in the higher echelons of government. “When I first took office, there was a definite undertone of ‘how can you do this, you are part of this club’, with allegations made that I like to catch people out. None of that is true – my approach is not personal at any level. My job is to ensure accountability for the nation, and the process is transparent. Like it or don’t like it, my approach is not going to change because government pays my salary.”
Madonsela has no qualms about her unpopularity. “As human beings, we don’t like to be found in the wrong. I have a mandate from the Presidency, who has always taken the process seriously. So when I make a finding, I know I am not going to be popular – but that is really neither here nor there.” She considers her office to be the conscience of the nation – although many consider her to be an irritating mosquito that won’t go away. “There is right and wrong, and those who are in the right will never know about us or complain about the team. We have just finished a case where a woman could not get UIF for more than four years. For her, the justice received was not an irritant at all. The independent investigation of government action is an essential component of a strong constitutional democracy.”
Her office has investigated several matters relating to ethical governance in the two years since she became Public Protector. “My role is to give justice where there were administrative injustices, identifying systemic deficiencies, exacting accountability in the use of public power and control over state resources and taking remedial action. “People are starting to believe in the Public Protector’s office because they feel not just justified, but they are getting something out of the process.”
Yet there is still much that has to be done to educate people about the office of the Public Protector.“... We use every opportunity we get to educate people about the office, because one of the major challenges continues to be explaining to people that just because we are asking questions, we are not professing to be their boss or better than them. We are seeking the truth in the name of justice, in the name of what is right and wrong. “The struggles my office often face have nothing to do with race or gender – something one would expect in South Africa which, for the most part, does have a patriarchal society. So, surprisingly, it has never been about this younger woman calling out faults, but rather the ‘code of the mafia’ that is problematic. We are breaking that unspoken rule of taking on ‘one of us’. That is just not how my team and I work. If you are in the wrong, even if your intentions were good, we are not going to turn our backs. I am accountable to the law and the Constitution and the people of South Africa.”
Madonsela is tough – that much is clear. Possibly her childhood heritage, she says. A single mother of two (her partner passed away some years ago), she grew up in Soweto, the daughter of a domestic worker. “My mother was strong. I recall her being arrested when I was about four, and how she came out of the situation a victor. She never saw herself as a victim... My father was an informal trader who, until his death at 83, was up at 4am and always busy. He had regular run-ins with the law over informal trading licences and, according to him, always won.” She laughs as she recalls him arriving home after such a run-in. “I don’t think he won at all, but it did tickle my interest in the law watching him tell how he outwitted the system. He did not believe in handouts, and always said hard work will be rewarded with success. “My parents were good, honest people who instilled values that I believe I have passed on to my children. Hard work, honesty, integrity are what I cherish and believe in.”
Madonsela says they also instilled the importance of education, and after finishing school she took up a teaching job in Soweto. “I was an untrained teacher and, if it was not for my mother, I think I would still be teaching at Naledi High. She always regretted leaving school, even though she had this amazing opportunity working for a missionary family who were willing to pay for her education. She let go of that opportunity and was determined I was not going to do the same.” Madonsela’s love for the law was further fuelled when she met her life partner, who was also a lawyer. “We had this vision for a just society, where a law practitioner did not have to take on cases that were against their moral fibre. I was luckier than him, as I have always been in situations where I did not have to take on cases that don’t sit right with my values.
He, however, often had to practise law to survive, taking on cases that were contradictory to what he believed in, and that was tough. I think watching the impact of that on him has always made me shy away from that vicious side of the profession.” Madonsela is deeply religious and spends her leisure time reading spiritual books.
“I have very strong values that I suppose one could describe as my moral compass. Having said that, though, I have never been in a position where I am desperate and have to take on any case that comes my way. I have been involved in projects like the drafting of the Constitution that was deeply rewarding.” Her values she has no doubt passed on to her children. “My son and I were recently at a petrol station and a man asked us for money, and my son immediately took the money from my purse and gave it to him. The result was we did not have enough for our own petrol, and when I pointed it out, his answer humbled me – because for us, he said, it was just a bother of finding an ATM, while for the other man it meant going without food. It makes me proud when they do things like that.” Like most working mothers, Madonsela she has often wondered (and felt guilty) if she spent enough time with her two children. “My advice to young women is always to put their children first. It is possibly the most difficult and precious of jobs you will ever do. I’m not sure I was always around enough, but they seem to be doing well for themselves, despite that.”
Both her children are at university – her daughter doing a BSc in criminology and her son is set to do his Masters next year in philosophy, she thinks. “That may change. Understandably, they are both strong characters who are not afraid to voice their opinions... They keep me grounded, if nothing else.” Time away from work is spent with them. Like most mothers, they are the be all and end all of her existence, and her face lights up when she talks of them.
She guards her and their privacy fiercely. “It goes without saying that my job brings me into the limelight all the time. My children did not necessarily ask for that, and don’t deserve to be thrust under the spotlight because of me.” When not working, she potters around her home, she says. “I love movies,” she confesses. “My children and I will often spend an afternoon watching one after the other, and while I am not a good cook, I enjoy putting on a spread when they are at home.” Madonsela is grateful for the chances awarded in her life, and believes she has still much to offer. “I have never aimed to be successful. I only always aim to do the best I can. If that happens to bring success, then it is good. I try to make decisions that are beyond reproach in my personal and professional life, to live the best life I possibly can.” And when she steps down from the office of the Public Protector? “Maybe I will teach and share some knowledge with the next generation. Who knows? I am not there yet.”