Ranjeni Munusamy: It's Thuli Madonsela's Time
The citation published by Time magazine to recognise South Africa's Public Protector Thuli Madonsela as one of the 100 most influential people in the world was written by the former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria Lamido Sanusi. It describes Madonsela as "an inspirational example of what African public officers need to be". Sanusi said it required "extraordinary courage and patriotism to do what Thuli Madonsela has done". Yet in South Africa, Madonsela has been subjected to scorn, attacks on her integrity and insults by many in the ruling coalition. The Time list is by no means the best and brightest citizens of the world - it has Miley Cyrus and Pharrell Williams on it - but the magazine rightfully states that Madonsela "has assured herself a place in the history of modern South Africa".
Madonsela is definitely not defined by the Nkandla investigation report, now the most common reference to her name, even though it has been the biggest challenge of her outstanding career. By taking on a probe into the upgrades at President Jacob Zuma's residence, Madonsela went where most others feared to tread. She pronounced on the conduct of the most politically powerful people in the country, withstanding intense pressure throughout the course of the investigation, but was determined to preserve its integrity.
The report is now a testament, exposing the full extent of the "toxic concoction of a lack of leadership, a lack of control and focused self-interest" which led to the "unconscionable" R246 million-upgrade to Zuma's private residence at state expense.
But Madonsela and the office she heads is much more than the two-year investigation into the Nkandla upgrades. Madonsela excelled at whatever she has touched, as a teacher, in Constitutional law and race and gender activism.
But when she became the public protector in 2009, she began to mould the office around her own values, that of justice, humanity, integrity, high morals and public service.
In 2011, Daily Maverick named Madonsela South African person of the year for her exceptional work as an ombudsman to the exercise of executive power with unwavering commitment to truth. We could have done so every year since then as Madonsela has continued to shine, exposing maladministration and improper conduct in government, building her office as a centre of excellence and displaying deep respect for the people of South Africa by acting as their guardian.
But it is perhaps how she herself describes her role that is most insightful. At the media conference to release her Nkandla report, Madonsela said the ombud was a fairly recent innovation in the area of public accountability globally. In South Africa, she said, there were parallels between the protector as an institution and non-political institutions that served to curb excesses in the exercise of public power.
"One institution is the Makhadzi which we have adopted as one of our symbols. The Makhadzi, an aunt, is a non-political figure who serves as a buffer between the ruler and the people," Madonsela said. "The public protector is part of innovative Constitutional institutions that are meant to help the people exact accountability in the exercise of state power and control over state resources through administrative scrutiny," she went on to explain. The Makhadzi "enhances the voice of the people while serving as the king's eyes, ears and conscience". He ignores her "at his own peril".
Not all cases dealt with by her office receive the media attention that the Nkandla report has drawn. "Most are resolved through the Makhadzi way of whispering to appropriate authorities about wrongdoing." Like the Makhadzi, she did not make the rules, Madonsela said. "They are made by those who are governed and those who govern. We are just the keepers of such rules."
There is no doubt that in the exercise of her work, Madonsela rates communicating with the public highly. Some might say - mostly her critics in the ANC, the ANC Youth League and the South African Communist Party - that she thrives on media attention and feeds the news monster, which is why she is the darling of South African newsrooms. She sees public engagement as part of her responsibility and also uses it to promote confidence in her office.
Very few people or institutions in the public service know how to do that. It is part of the reason so many people in government resent her. Madonsela rarely says no to being interviewed; she understands that the media is the conduit to her audience and therefore makes herself available to explain her work - whether it is on early morning television to late night radio talk shows, or sitting down to tell Daily Maverick how her work sometimes makes her cry.
Madonsela's ability to market herself and her work has been used against her. She has been accused of campaigning through the media and blamed for leaks of her provisional reports. After the release of the Nkandla report and the damning findings of ethical breaches by the president and maladministration by members of his Cabinet, the criticism and attacks reached a peak, with accusations that she had a political agenda and even crude commentary about her appearance.
Neither Zuma nor his government have responded formally to Madonsela's report yet, with the president deferring his response until he has receipt of the Special Investigating Unit probe into the upgrades. A parliamentary ad-hoc committee has now been constituted to look into the matter, but it appears from its first meeting that the ANC is trying to undermine any proper interrogation and is trying to run out the clock. The committee has to complete its work by 30 April.
From the comments made by the ANC MPs in the committee meeting on Thursday, they appear not to have read the report even though it is widely accessible and pronounces on the conduct of their party leader. The subtext is that they have not taken Madonsela's report seriously enough to have read it.
Most recently, Madonsela has been trying to fend off an onslaught by a group of KwaZulu-Natal lawyers who have embarked on a roadshow to discredit her Nkandla report. The Mail & Guardian reported this week that the lawyers say they are in the process of preparing a court application to seek a review of the Nkandla report. In the meantime they are addressing public events, presenting their views on Madonsela's report, which they have apparently likened to a "joke", claimed lacks credibility and that her findings have no basis in law.
Madonsela's office responded to the lawyers' claims by explaining that the report's findings are final and binding. "Their comments are totally unfounded and clearly show that they are confusing the public protector's inquisitorial justice with the adversarial justice of our courts," the public protector's communications manager Oupa Segalwe told the Mail & Guardian.
"The public protector is not aware of any inconsistencies, as alleged by this group. The report is evidence-based and speaks for itself."
Amid the continuing controversy over Nkandla, Time magazine announced its annual list of 100 most influential people in the world. Madonsela is named in the category of "leaders", which include US President Barack Obama, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is also on the list, underlining the point that the list recognised influence rather than the smartest, most upstanding leaders.
Other categories feature performers Beyonce, Miley Cyrus and Pharrell Williams, and actress Kerry Washington. Soccer star Christiano Ronaldo joins Pope Francis and Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai in the category of "icons".
Madonsela said in a statement that she was "taken by surprise that the modest efforts of her office were not only been recognised at home but elsewhere in the world too".
"I also hope that this gesture will put the public protector or the ombudsman institution on the world map, therefore alerting governments of the potential of this institution as a partner in promoting good governance, thus strengthening constitutional democracy."
The global recognition for Madonsela and her office is well deserved, even though the list might be a hodge-podge of the world's biggest movers and shakers, not all of whom aspire to the same values she does. But the best recognition for Madonsela would be from the people whom she serves and whom she hopes to guide to greater standards of ethical conduct.
In her citation, former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria Lamido Sanusi says: "To speak about corruption in high places is often subversive and always embarrassing. The machinery of state can be called upon to intimidate or even destroy and eliminate whistle-blowers.
"It therefore requires extraordinary courage and patriotism to do what Thuli Madonsela has done. Yet in standing up for the truth as she sees it, she has assured herself a place in the history of modern South Africa and among the tiny but growing band of African public servants giving us hope for the future of our continent."
Thuli Madonsela is indeed a symbol of hope and personifies what is good and great about South Africa. She has performed an outstanding service to this country and now the world too has acknowledged that she is no ordinary human being.
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.