Indulge in some literary banting
15 December 2017 20:11 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Thuli Madonsela is reclaiming respect for women’s authority

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

The public protector is respected both as a leader and as a woman. In a deeply sexist society, she is that rarity: a woman who enjoys broad support and is able to carry out and articulate a distinctly feminist vision.

The public has been witness to the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) aggressive and abusive treatment of the Office of the Public Protector. We have heard the accusations that the public protector herself is having illicit meetings with other political parties and we have seen attempts by the so-called justice portfolio committee to economically starve her team. We recognise this pattern; we have all seen it too many times.

Watching the ongoing spectacle reminds us of how women are treated in South Africa on a daily basis. If Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s office were a woman and the ANC were a man we would be pushing for her to apply for a protection order. Thankfully, like women across the country who survive misogyny every day, Madonsela refuses to be a victim.

The effect of lavishing all of this attention on Madonsela’s relationship with the ruling party is that it has denied us the opportunity to properly examine the proactive ways in which her office is working to deepen democracy and strengthen transparency. In all the political drama, Madonsela has emerged a hero, but not always for the right reasons.

It is easy to commend someone for standing up to bullies as the public protector has done even in the face of increasingly hysterical tactics. What is more difficult – and all Chapter Nine institutions have struggled with this – is to help to build an ethos of accountability. Writing reports is necessary but reactive. Building and nurturing a culture of collective responsibility is an altogether more difficult but critical thing.

In working to build this culture, the public protector’s gender and racial identity have been crucially important for reasons far larger than simple representativity.

The public protector is respected both as a leader and as a woman. In a deeply sexist society, she is that rarity: a woman who enjoys broad support and is able to carry out and articulate a distinctly feminist vision. Most women in leadership are forced to pander to sexism, to negotiate with power structures and so on. No doubt Madonsela has done her share of that. But it is important to examine the way she doesn’t apologise for being a woman and pushes women’s experiences to the forefront.

Madonsela’s most marked characteristic in this regard is the quality of courageous vulnerability. The most profound public moments in the saga around Nkandla have been those in which the public protector has been visibly anxious but has insisted on reading every single word of the documents before her. In those moments, it has been quiet determination that has propelled her forward, rather than machismo or blazing impulse and adrenaline. With the cameras rolling and the lights flashing, we have seen on her face the woundedness and her inner strength as she grapples with them both. We have seen the exhaustion of months of research, and the strain of sleepless nights. We have seen her immaculate attire and flawless make-up and we have watched her search – and then find – the right word to answer the tough question. In other words, Madonsela has made no attempt to hide the difficulties, which is why we can savour the triumphs alongside her. It isn’t just that she is fighting on our behalf, it is that she herself is somehow ours, an embodiment of our own travails and joys.

I would rather have Madonsela’s courageous vulnerability as a model of leadership than the chest thumping we see from many others across the political spectrum. Yet sadly, hers is a leadership style we simply don’t see in action enough in our country. In boardrooms and offices on a daily basis we have too many leaders who think honesty is never the best policy.

Madonsela’s approach is not only seen in difficult moments, it is also evident in the philosophy that underpins her conduct. The public protector has often cited the institution of the makhadzi as her inspiration. She has said: “There are some parallels between the Venda makhadzi and the public protector. The makhadzi … gives the people a voice while giving the traditional ­leader a conscience.”

The metaphor of the makhadzi is powerful for many reasons. In the first instance, in invoking this image, Madonsela reminds us that accountability and justice are not exogenous to African societies. She also nudges us towards a recognition that women are not new to the public domain and that their credentials as leaders are tried and tested.

One might argue that the makhadzi is always an adviser and never a leader. It would be easy to assume that implicit in Madonsela’s use of the image of the makhadzi as the adviser is the notion that women are good enough to advise but not to lead. But herein lies the genius of Madonsela. The Venda are the holders of a centuries-old unbroken matriarchal monarchy and they are the only ethnic group in Africa still ruled by a female monarch.

The public protector then is quite deliberately reclaiming, resurrecting and insisting upon respect for women’s authority as a cornerstone of democratic accountability.

Of course the metaphor of the makhadzi is not without its risks. All societies punish women who speak too loudly and ask too many questions. The same traditional societies in which makhadzi have always had a place are those communities where older women are easily banished, cast out, ignored and accused of being witches if they are seen to have upset the social order.

Despite this, by daring to reframe South Africa’s democratic objectives in explicitly Africanist and feminist ways, the public protector uses her knowledge of what it means to be a black woman in this society to broaden our understanding of what it means to lead.

There is no underestimating the effect Madonsela continues to have on the political imaginations of all who live in South Africa.

While many of our leaders are intent on aiming a wrecking ball at our most important democratic institutions, our public protector refuses to do this. Instead, she inspires us with her thoughtfulness, and with her insistence that her office is an African institution not some Western construct. Again and again - in her manner and her style – the advocate shows us that courage lies at the intersection of outrage and vulnerability.

May our public protector – and all of South Africa’s women - have a respectful Women’s Month. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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