On 18 October 2009, Jacob Zuma made his first big mistake. He appointed Thuli Madonsela as Public Protector. Her appointment had already been unanimously approved by Parliament (contrast this with the ongoing furore surrounding Kholeka Gcaleka’s appointment) but Zuma still had to rubber stamp it. While doing so, he reminded her of her duties:
“Advocate Madonsela takes on an important responsibility, having to protect South Africans against any abuse of power by state organs or officials. She will need to ensure that this office continues to be accessible to ordinary citizens and undertakes its work without fear or favour.”
Of course, Zuma was just paying lip service to the concepts of democracy and accountability espoused in the Constitution. Madonsela’s predecessors as Public Protector had been largely toothless. Why would she be any different?
We all know what happened next. With grace, tenacity and endless patience, Madonsela exposed first how Zuma used public money to enhance his private residence at Nkandla to the tune of R246-million. Then, in the thrilling final act of her seven-year, non-renewable tenure as Public Protector she exposed how Zuma and his cronies had sold the government itself to the highest bidder with her State of Capture report.
In March 2016, while ruling on her handling of the Nkandla report, the Constitutional Court took the unprecedented step of including what was in essence an ode to Madonsela in its unanimous judgment in her favour: “The Public Protector is thus one of the most invaluable constitutional gifts to our nation in the fight against corruption, unlawful enrichment, prejudice and impropriety in State affairs and for the betterment of good governance… She is the embodiment of a biblical David… who fights the most powerful and very well-resourced Goliath.”
When he appointed Madonsela, Zuma had only been president for eight months. But already he appeared to think he was above the law. Or, at the very least, that the law didn’t apply to him.
But he had forgotten about the many South Africans like Madonsela who believe passionately that everyone is equal before the law. Madonsela helped to write South Africa’s Constitution. And she has spent the rest of her life trying to make sure that the words on the page become reality. (For those who are not aware, she currently heads up the Centre for Social Justice at Stellenbosch University where she’s inspiring a new generation of activists and changemakers). As she told me once: “constitutions are not magic worms; they need committed people who want to make them come alive”.
Madonsela did not fight Zuma-era corruption and unaccountability alone. We also owe a huge debt of gratitude to people like Themba Maseko, Bianca Goodson, Mosilo Mothepu, Jacques Pauw, Judge Raymond Zondo and many, many others. And, of course, their work is not done yet. The tendrils of State Capture still afflict all aspects of our society.
But this makes remembering — and celebrating — the anniversary of her appointment all the more important. Madonsela did not act alone and her work is not done. But I have no doubt that without her efforts South Africa would be in a worse predicament than it is.
I’ve just co-written a book about 12 people who changed South Africa for the better. Madonsela is the only living legend in Legends but she is certainly not the only person alive who is fighting to make South Africa a better place. I’ve already mentioned a few names, but I’m not only talking about people in the political sphere, or even those with a high profile. We all know someone who’s making a positive difference to our country. While writing the book I was reminded of the many horrors our country has endured. But I was equally inspired by the remarkable men and women who, in every era and region of our country, have refused to allow South Africa to be reduced to ruin.
With the 14th anniversary of her appointment, we can certainly take inspiration from her steadfast commitment to making the words of our Constitution a reality. I don’t know where the next Madonsela will come from — but history tells me there will be one. As Madonsela herself says, “I get a sense that a generation is emerging that is willing to engage in finding a way to redistribute power, redistribute resources. People who want to move to a society where ‘leaders eat last’.”
Amen to that. This country ain’t done yet. DM