Thuli Madonsela used to be a loyal member of South Africa’s African National Congress. Now she’s at loggerheads with the ruling party after exposing alleged wrongdoing by top politicians including President Jacob Zuma.
Since Zuma appointed Madonsela as Public Protector in 2009, he’s fired three ministers and a police chief she said were guilty of impropriety. Last month Madonsela found Zuma unduly benefited from 215 million rand ($20 million) in state-funded renovations on his private home and recommended that he repay some of the money. No cabinet ministers were dismissed as a result of a probe by Madonsela’s predecessor, Lawrence Mushwana.
Her report on Zuma provoked criticism from members of the ANC, with the party’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, calling it “political.” Stone Sizani, the ANC’s chief whip in Parliament, said Madonsela made disparaging comments about the legislature, the ANC and a team of cabinet ministers that cleared Zuma of wrongdoing in a separate probe.
“The difference between her and the others is that she has taken her mandate seriously,” Pierre de Vos, a law professor at the University of Cape Town, said in an April 9 phone interview. “She is a person of integrity. That hasn’t always played well with those who’ve been called to account.”
Madonsela read out her conclusions against Zuma about state spending on his house in Nkandla in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal during a two-hour press conference that was televised live on March 19. Zuma, who’s seeking re-election next month, has denied any wrongdoing.
Zuma said in an April 1 letter to Parliamentary Speaker Max Sisulu that won’t respond to Madonsela’s findings until a separate state investigation had finished its work.
The soft-spoken Madonsela, a 51-year-old single mother of two who quotes from the bible in speeches, said politicians’ criticisms are misdirected and she isn’t backing down.
“Are we going to criticize the referee or the red-carded parties?” she said in an April 4 speech at the University of Johannesburg, referring to players who are dismissed in soccer matches. “For the system to hold, we need to be consistent and ensure that there is no impunity.”
The daughter of informal traders who grew up in Soweto township near Johannesburg, Madonsela became a civil rights activist in the 1980s while working part time as a teacher during white-minority rule.
Madonsela earned a law degree from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and held several labor union and academic posts. With the end of apartheid in 1994, Madonsela was appointed to a technical committee that drafted South Africa’s first multiracial constitution. She forfeited a scholarship to Harvard Law School to take the job.
She joined the Justice Department, where she worked for eight years, after rejecting an ANC offer to become a lawmaker following the 1994 elections that brought the party and Nelson Mandela to power. Prior to her current job, Madonsela managed the South African Law Reform Commission, a state advisory body.
“She is strong-willed and has a strong sense of what is right,” said Cathy Albertyn, a law professor at the University of Witwatersrand who’s known Madonsela since the early 1990s and worked with her at the university’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies and the Law Reform Commission. “Those two things combined make somebody who is prepared to stand up to power.”
Madonsela was instrumental in ensuring the Law Reform Commission retained its autonomy and didn’t become an extension of the Justice Department, said Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, a lawyer who served as a part-time commissioner.
“If there was anything that distinguished her, it must have been her independence,” Ngcukaitobi said by phone from Johannesburg on April 11.
Madonsela’s appointment as public protector in October 2009 received support from all parties in Parliament. The office was set up under the constitution to “investigate any conduct in state affairs, or in the public administration in any sphere of government, that is alleged or suspected to be improper or to result in any impropriety or prejudice.”
The ombudsman presents the results of her investigations of cabinet members to the president, who has final say over what action to take. While the president is a member of the cabinet, the law does not specify what action should be taken if he is implicated.
The Public Protector can also submit a report to the National Assembly if it’s deemed in the public interest, requires legislative action or has been asked by the speaker of Parliament to do so.
The ombudsman’s findings can be challenged in court.
Madonsela’s refusal to kowtow to politicians became evident a few months after taking office when she admonished Zuma for failing to meet a deadline to declare his assets and business interests within 60 days of taking office.
The casualties of her investigations include Police Commissioner Bheki Cele, who Madonsela said broke state procurement rules when he authorized payment for a 500-million-rand lease for new police headquarters, and Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, who Madonsela said failed to cooperate in the lease probe. Local governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka was alleged to have used state funds to visit his girlfriend in a Swiss jail. All three, who denied wrongdoing, were fired.
Last year, Zuma replaced Communications Minister Dina Pule, who Madonsela found had persistently lied and engaged in unethical conduct. Pule told Parliament on Aug. 20 that she made a mistake and apologized.
The Public Protector’s office has probed a litany of complaints against the government and state companies that didn’t make the headlines, with more than 40,000 cases processed in the year through March.
“We have travelled a great distance from where we were in 1994,” Madonsela said in the April 4 speech. “We have covered less ground than we could have if it wasn’t for maladministration. We will have to tackle maladministration effectively.”
Madonsela, whose seven-year term ends in 2016, has her critics. Members of Parliament’s justice committee said that during heated hearings in May last year she failed to respond to questions on why she decided to take on some investigations. She replied that the lawmakers only oversaw her office’s budget and had no right to interrogate her about probes.
“I was a little uncomfortable with the rigor of the questioning,” Steve Swart, who represents the opposition African Christian Democratic Party on the justice committee, said in an April 9 interview in Cape Town. “She has a certain view of her mandate and some committee members hold a different view. It’s not easy terrain.”
Madonsela also clashed with her former deputy Mamiki Shai, who told the justice committee that her boss placed her under pressure to change reports and destroy evidence and withheld a report probing a council led by the opposition Democratic Alliance. Madonsela dismissed the allegations as baseless, and lawmakers rejected them as unsubstantiated.
“The type of matters she takes on and the complaints she investigates have an impact on millions of people,” said Bonita Meyersfeld, a law professor who heads the University of Witwatersrand’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies. “She has fastidiously prioritized the needs of people who otherwise aren’t able to have a voice that is heard by the authorities and the repositories of power. She has injected heroism back into the law profession.”