Professor Thuli Madonsela’s noteworthy exit from the public protector’s office four-and-a-half years ago coincided with the release of her State of Capture report into corruption, which led to the protracted, ongoing Zondo Commission of Inquiry.
The high-profile advocate currently resides in Stellenbosch, where she is immersed in social justice causes.
In this interview, the unflappable Madonsela issues a sombre word of warning to South Africa, but softens it with an indefatigable explosion of hope.
“South Africa is a breath away from becoming an imploding society, and we have people – political entrepreneurs – who are trying to gaslight that implosion,” Thuli Madonsela has warned.
Clicking her fingers three times to convey how perilously close the country was to the edge, Madonsela said in a virtual interview that these entrepreneurs would use the “sadness and anger and turn it into [their] gold”.
“We have seen it in Europe and the US, when people are left behind… then an enterprising politician turns that pain into political dynamite.”
If South Africa’s economy worsened further, this would steer the country closer to a
“directionless revolution, where you see something that looks like a revolution, but they don’t have the best interests of the people at heart. They are just political entrepreneurs,” she said.
The former public protector now teaches law and is the inaugural Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University.
The main thrust of her work is to develop research and focus on projects that aim to break the back of poverty and inequality in SA by 2030.
Her household name also pops up in myriad national and global projects seeking world peace and justice.
The need for redress in SA is enormous.
“When people are sick, just hearing the siren of an ambulance makes them feel better, but if it doesn’t seem like anything is coming, hope flies out the window.
Hope goes away and we have a directionless revolution in the making.”
Defend Our Democracy
Madonsela is a signatory to the recently launched Defend Our Democracy
campaign initiated by a broad church of political figures, many of whom are Struggle
stalwarts mobilising against corruption and safeguarding the Constitution and the
judiciary, both of which have come under fire by, among others, former SA president Jacob Zuma,
who faces arrest and a jail term for snubbing the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture – with a ruling pending in the Constitutional Court.
Madonsela is supportive of the initiative and was a speaker at an online rally on Sunday,
18 April, but she cautioned that it was not sufficient to defend democracy per se.
The campaign would only gain traction if it spoke to “Gogo Dlamini”; it needed to be a
movement “where people on the street need to know we are with them”.
“We can’t only be concerned about saving democracy.
It will not be successful if it doesn’t speak to the everyday challenges faced by ordinary people…
The majority of people feel it [democracy] is not working for them.”
Ordinary South Africans who have been left behind despite 27 years of democracy were
interested in change that impacted on them, they were asking: “‘which of these people
knows that I am in pain?’ And ‘Why should I defend democracy for the sake of democracy’?”
Madonsela described how Palesa Mosa, whose name was used at the launch of her multipronged social reconstruction programme, t
he M-Plan, at Stellenbosch, told them that she had fought against apartheid.
“She said: ‘Now that we have this thing called democracy, that is not what we asked for.
I don’t want democracy, I want the freedom that I fought for.’”
The message from Mosa, who remained poor and could not afford to properly educate her
children, was clear: what pass laws achieved during apartheid was now achieved by poverty in democracy.
One of South Africa’s many post-democratic mistakes had been tinkering with
employment and introducing BEE, but essentially leaving the system in place, said
Madonsela. “It is thus not shocking that we have become the most unequal society in the world.”
For Madonsela, social justice initiatives and specific campaigns on the basic income grant,
among others, needed to connect, and not work in isolation. (Madonsela herself is founder
of the Thuma Foundation, an organisation promoting democracy through leadership and engagement).
What was needed by democrats was messaging that says “we know you are in pain, we care,” said Madonsela.
She warned that if democrats did not intervene decisively to turn the tide and build a
caring society, then “trust me, people will support charlatans if they are the only ones who seem to care about them”.
The RET message
She said that the Radical Economic Transformation movement – with ANC Secretary-General and corruption-accused Ace Magashule now at the forefront
– had reframed the fight. “Their message is that it is black people together, without any other distinctions – just black vs white.”
The RET campaign used simple messaging – like Hitler’s message of getting back control,
Trump’s Make America Great Again. “The RET says – your problem is white, let’s get back the land.”
Democrats needed to ask what they can learn “from these wrongdoers who used
nefarious ways to divide people.
We need to create messaging that is a call to action, one that says ‘count us in’.”
When asked if the ANC was capable of self-correcting despite the decay within,
Madonsela, a long-standing ANC member until 2007, said: “I honestly don’t know, I would be lying.”
There were good people in the ANC. The question was: “Have we reached a tipping point
in such a way that the bad guys are in the majority, or can the good guys… reclaim a path
with an emphasis on social justice. I really don’t know.
“But what I do know for sure, is that there is not a clear alternative to the ANC.”
Pushed whether this meant that she felt that the ANC was thus still the only option, she wavered: “It would appear so, I don’t know. The ANC has the right heart with the wrong head.”
The ANC understood, rightly, that you can’t wish away race. She found it incomprehensible that in SA, a political party [the DA] would try to move away from race when trying to level the playing field. “I don’t understand that at all.”
Asked whether she would join a political party, she said that four years ago she had said “not in this lifetime”. But after a year of learning at Harvard in 2017, her position had shifted, slightly. “If it gets to the point that I am needed, I can’t say that I will not answer that call.
“I am hoping I never have to do that. That is why I took up this offer at Stellenbosch, that is why I am part of the Thuma Foundation, to raise leaders who can do the job so that you don’t have to enter the arena yourself.”
She remains steadfast and hopeful that the mission for social justice and redress will yield results. When asked about her vision for SA in five years’ time, she said: “That we will have broken the back of poverty and made a huge difference in reducing structural inequality.”
Tackling the hate and vitriol
Asked what her secret was to staying calm, Madonsela, who has more than 1.5 million followers on hate-spewing Twitter yet appears to never lose her cool, said: The composure is not 100% – I can be rattled… for two minutes, then I catch myself.”
She did not take the attacks personally. “My attackers have a worldview, and they are trying to drive it. They see me standing in the way… even those who tried to have me killed as a public protector, it was not personal dislike, it was their own way of survival.”
She understood why she was being attacked. “It is a continuation, it is self-preservation. Zuma and others are facing the possibility of going to jail, of losing what they have, because if a finding of corruption is made you are at risk of also losing what you have worked for.”
People flung mud in the hope that some would stick; if it didn’t stick, it still bought time, and hopefully sympathy.
“The Bell Pottinger strategy of fighting a criminal investigation was always about turning the table on investigators – so two narratives [run] at the same time… That started when I began this [State Capture] investigation – the real culprit [was presented] as white monopoly capital.”
Madonsela’s mother had taught her that when a person is drowning, they can kill you “not because they hate you, but because they pull you down as a lever to get you out [of the way]. It is about self-preservation.”
Madonsela had faith in the State Capture inquiry, which she had ordered be established in her report that was released in her last day in office as public protector in October 2016.
But there had been flaws, and here she was not referring to the conspiracy theories being flung around by those implicated in corruption, which included attacks on herself and the chairperson, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.
“They did mess up the process by expanding the reach of the commission. If you are digging one small hole, instead of digging a huge hole, if you are going big sideways, you can’t go fast downwards. By going too wide, the commission was not able to go deep, fast.”
That is why, almost five years later, the work of the Zondo Commission
– which ironically was established by then-president Zuma in compliance with Madonsela’s report – had not yet concluded.
But Madonsela was resolute. “The moral arc of the universe may be wide, but it always bends to justice. It takes time, but the commission will take us in the right direction, it will contribute to the truth.”
The US and SA: It is a time of great hope, people are looking for leadership
Madonsela recently hooked up with Keith Benson, a US-based empowerment and social change activist who delivered a lecture hosted by her late in March as social justice chair.
At the lecture, Benson proposed that a “gold standard” in social justice for the rest of the world be drawn up between Madonsela’s office in Stellenbosch and Harvard University, through an initiative he founded, the Department of PEACE to promote political, economic, academic, cultural and environmental justice to all.
“We have seen examples of where things have grown horribly wrong – such as racial bigotry, police brutality, and issues around access to quality education and the financial costs associated with this. Equally though, each nation has shown the ability to recover or to reset itself to some extent, with the contribution made by leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, and the arrival of a free and democratic dispensation in South Africa while America turned its back on the legacy of Donald Trump,” said Benson.
Linked up virtually from the US during SA Times News ’s interview with Madonsela, Benson, a Harvard Fellow and Grammy award-winning drummer, explained that in the post-Trump era, social justice was at the centre of political consciousness. “It is a time of great hope. People are looking for leadership. With the previous president, it was hard to have hope, but he was rejected.”
South Africa and the US were two historically unjust and unfair nations, well-placed to come together to set a gold standard of what is fair. “It is a good time to be alive, a good time to get this done.”