After being named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2014, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is to receive another award – Rhodes University will be conferring an honorary doctorate on her on Friday.
Heather Dugmore profiles one of SA’s most outstanding citizens.
It’s 5pm at the Pretoria headquarters of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. This is home time for most people, but not for her. There is no nine to five when your work is about ensuring that corruption and wrongdoing at all levels of government are exposed.
Her office, like the advocate herself, has a serene atmosphere that belies the rigorous work that takes place when members of her team, mostly advocates, regularly meet and work into the small hours.
Madonsela, who will be receiving an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University on Friday, doesn’t make a big deal of her long hours or achievements. She’s just doing her job.
“For as long as I am in this job, my team and I will investigate each case put before us and use the Constitution and law to establish the truth. And when those in government have done wrong, my office is compelled to address this,” she says.
Madonsela says she sometimes feels sorry for the perpetrators “because when something is wrong and everyone can see it, your inability to acknowledge your wrongdoing is perpetuating your own sad life”.
Regrettably, she adds, the tragedy of government wrongdoing at all levels is not restricted to the individual; it has exponential consequences for the rest of the country.
“In this life, whether you are on the big stage or small stage, there is no choice but to take responsibility for your actions. When those in government have committed wrongs, if they admit to them and start taking responsibility for their actions, it somehow massages the hurt and the country can start to move forward. Fortunately, South Africans are forgiving people. But when those in government refuse to take responsibility, then there’s no making amends, because they perpetuate the sense that they will do it again.”
Although the Nkandla matter has become a symbol of the gaping lack of responsibility among those in the country’s highest echelons, it is but one of the more than 37 000 cases the Office of the Public Protector deals with each year – most of which are resolved within three months.
Then there are the larger, lingering cases – from the nondelivery of school textbooks to government’s commitment to nuclear power deals that haven’t followed the proper consultation processes and the e-toll saga.
“It sounds like a cliché, but at the heart of good governance is the need for open, honest communication,” she says.
“People need the space and freedom to be able to communicate what they think, feel and need. If you don’t give them this, they stop communicating or tell you what they think you want to hear – because they are afraid of the consequences of being open and honest.
“Irrespective of whether you are the head of a country or company, a parent or a friend, the need for open, honest communication is the same.”
To keep some perspective on life, Madonsela tries to set aside time to walk, meditate in her garden, go to church and listen to classical music.
Holidays are few and far between, but Durban, Cape Town and Victoria Falls are three of her destinations of choice – and she would like to visit Israel.
“I’m fascinated by ancient civilisations and I often wonder how they would view us and what we have done to this earth,” she says.
“I’m concerned for the earth. We rush ahead with what we think is ‘development’, often without sufficient environmental impact studies, and then land up with all sorts of severe environmental problems, including global warming.”
Having said this, Madonsela is not pessimistic about the planet. “In the past few years we have seen the rise of many more conscious beings who are looking at what is good for our planet.”
She adds that even our country’s critical problems, notably Eskom, might result in positive outcomes – such as upscaled renewable energy investment as the fastest, most sustainable solution to power generation.
She is driven “to do what I think I need to do in the time I have here” by the “realisation of the impermanence of life”.
That Madonsela is also on borrowed time in her office worries many South Africans, as she completes her term in October next year.
What will happen when she goes? Will the state ensure that the next Public Protector is a yes man?
“I’m fairly confident that won’t happen, and I hope the state will appoint someone who can build on the work I have started.
“However, irrespective of this, institutionally what I have tried to do is build a strong, capable team that is committed to our democracy. I believe my team will continue to hold the next Public Protector accountable at every turn, as they do me.”
By Heather Dugmore
Photo: The investigation into Nkandla is just one of more than 37 000 cases that are dealt with by the Office of the Public Protector each year. Advocate Thuli Madonsela’s term of office ends in October next year. Picture: Herman Verwey/Foto24
Source: City Press