It’s 5 o’clock in the afternoon at the Pretoria headquarters of Soweto-born Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, who is on Time magazine’s 2014 list of the 100 Most Influential People In The World. This is home time for most people but not for Madonsela, as there is no nine to five when your work is all about making sure that corruption and wrongdoings at all levels of government are exposed.

She’s running late and apologises for this before showing me to the lounge area of her office. From the outset she is as engaging and gracious as ever, but as we all know, her demeanor is backed by her strength of character that repeatedly reveals itself.

To establish the truth

She doesn’t make a big deal of this. For her, it’s simply doing her job, as she explains: “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 the law to establish the truth. And when those in government have done wrong, my office is compelled to address this.”

Madonsela says that she sometimes feels pity 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 wrongdoings at all levels is not restricted to the individual; it has exponential consequence for the whole country.

No choice but to take responsibility

“In this life, whether you are on the big stage or the small stage, there is no choice but to take responsibility for your actions,” she elaborates.

“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. However, when those in government refuse to take responsibility then there is no making amends because they perpetuate the sense that they will do it again.”

More than 37 000 cases

While the Nkandla files have become the symbol of the gaping lack of responsibility at the highest echelon, it is but one of the more than 37 000 cases that the Office of the Public Protector deals with each year, the majority of which are resolved within three months.

The larger, lingering cases range from the non-delivery of textbooks to schools to the government’s commitment to nuclear power deals without following the proper consultation process to the e-toll saga.

We look to Madonsela to take all this up on our behalf, which she willingly does, backed up by a skilled team of advocates in every province.

As we all know, Madonsela and her team are not afraid of taking on the top brass, but her work is as much about supporting ordinary citizens who finds themselves at the receiving end of any abuse of power, be it at a national, provincial or local level.

The need for open, honest communication

“It sounds like a cliché but at the heart of all this 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 then they stop communicating or they 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 a company or a parent, the need for open, honest communication is the same. I hope I do this with my team and I am getting better at doing this with my children.”

As a single mother

As a single mother, Madonsela is the sole parent to her son, Wantu Madonsela, who was pursuing a theology degree but decided this is not his calling, and her daughter, Wenzile Madonsela who is studying law. Their father and Madonsela’s partner, Nhlanhla Mngomezulu, passed away some years back.

Wantu and Wenzile are both in their twenties now, but when they were young, Madonsela had to accept that she could not be there for them as much as she would have liked to have been.

“There were some balls I couldn’t avoid dropping. I would be on my way to a school event when I would be called to a critical meeting,” she explains. “It pained me that I could not always be there for my children but as a working mother it was not always possible as I had to support us financially. At the same time I have always believed in playing my part in making a better country for us all.”

A supportive network of friends

This doesn’t leave much time for herself, but Advocate Madonsela says she is fortunate to have a supportive network of friends: “They are also extremely busy professional women, they are all lawyers, and when we are able to get together and catch up it really helps us to relax and get perspective on life.”

She adds that they all completely understand that frequent contact is not possible but it does not affect the quality of their friendship.

Where possible, she tries to make time to walk, meditate in the garden of her home in Pretoria, go to church and listen to classical music. Holidays, however, are few and far between.

“I find holidays quite taxing because you are always worrying about whether everyone is having a good time,” she smiles.

Durban, Cape Town and the Victoria Falls are three of her destinations of choice, and she would very much 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 explains.

I’m concerned for the Earth

“I’m concerned for the Earth. We rush ahead with what we think is ‘development’, often without sufficient environmental impact studies, and then we land up with all sorts of severe environmental problems, including global warming.”

Having said this, she is not pessimistic about the planet: “In the last few years we have seen the rise of many more conscious beings who are looking at what is good for everyone on our planet and what is good for tomorrow. We are seeing this at the World Economic Forum and at the United Nations Environmental Summits, and in the increase in environmental awareness at all levels.”

She adds that even our country’s critical problems, notably Eskom, might result in a positive renewable energy outcome. “My son pointed out to me that the ongoing problem with Eskom presents the perfect opportunity for our country to significantly increase our renewable energy capacity as the fastest, most sustainable solution.”

She believes that we need to listen more closely to what young people have to say about the solutions required, not only regarding technological issues, or issues about the survival of our planet but also about relationship issues.

A young girl in Soweto

Looking back on her own life, her memories of being a young girl growing up in Soweto remain distinct.

“I remember helping my late father, Bafana Madonsela, run his mobile shop,” she recalls. “He sold the usual range of items – sweets, oranges, apples, biscuits, steel wool… and when young guys would come to buy something I would step aside and pretend that I had nothing to do with the shop and was simply waiting there for the bus.”

Madonsela’s late mother, Nora Nomasonto Madonsela, was a domestic worker and community midwife as many women delivered their babies at home.

“She was also a problem-solver in our community and if husbands and wives or people in the community were arguing they would come to her for advice.”

She describes her mother as was “deeply compassionate”. If a stranger knocked on their door and said they were hungry, her mother would always give them food, even if it meant that her own family went without that night.

Dealing with tragedy

Madonsela has also had to deal with the tragedy of three of her siblings dying: one in a car accident, one of pneumonia and one committed suicide.

“No matter what age we are, we are all here on borrowed time and the realisation of the impermanence of life really drives me to do what I think I need to do in the time that I have here,” she explains.

The fact that Madonsela is on borrowed time in her office worries the whole of South Africa as she completes her term in October 2016.

What will happen when she goes? Will the state ensure that the next Public Protector is a ‘Yes’ person?

“I’m fairly confident this won’t happen and I hope that the state will appoint someone who can build on the work I have started,” she says. “However, irrespective of this, institutionally what I have tried to do is to build a strong, capable team that is committed to our democracy. I believe that my team will continue to hold the next Public Protector accountable at every turn, as they do me.”

What will Madonsela do after October 2016?

Madonsela has given some thought as to what she will do after October next year:

“I want to spend time reflecting and writing about how this office can help to strengthen good governance and justice in South Africa, and perhaps provide some training on human rights, equality and social justice, as these are my core concerns. I have also considered practising as an advocate and teaching at a university part-time.”

Fortunately this is still a year-and-a-half away. Until then we will continue to have Madonsela standing up for us and sticking to her guns.


Note: Rhodes University proudly conferred an Honorary Doctorate on Advocate Madonsela at the graduation ceremony on the 10th April 2015.