Newsmaker – Thuli Madonsela: Who will protect the protector?

2013-11-10 14:00

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Thuli Madonsela has no state-sponsored security at her home – “not at all”.

In an interview in Noseweek’s September issue, the Public Protector spoke of her trip to Nkandla, President Jacob Zuma’s private residence, where more than R200 million of state money was spent on security.

The on-site inspection was the final phase of her investigation.

Not for her, the guards’ barracks, football fields for security staff and underground bunker.

“When things started happening which potentially threatened my security at home, I sold my house and moved to a house in a security complex, at my own expense,” she says.

These words, though, were spoken long before Friday, when the state’s security cluster applied to the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria to prevent her from releasing her interim report to the affected parties.

Asked before September if there were limits to spending on presidents’ and Cabinet members’ security at their private homes, she gave little away.

“Sadly, if I told you, I would be disclosing our view,” she responded. “Our job is to apply the rules, to establish what happened – and what should have happened. Was any deviation from what should have happened reasonable?”

The Nkandla report is the latest in Madonsela’s career as Public Protector that has seen her on a collision course with those in power.

In May, she learnt that her new deputy, Advocate Kevin Malunga, wrote to the parliamentary portfolio committee on justice behind her back, to dissociate himself from the “unpleasant altercation” between them and his boss over her powers and their oversight role.

In a letter to committee chairperson Luwellyn Landers, Malunga thanked the committee for the meeting, but added: “I, however, want to put on record my regret at the unpleasant altercation that took place between Advocate Madonsela and members of the portfolio committee concerning the powers of the Public Protector vis-à-vis the oversight of Parliament.”

Madonsela said what Malunga did amounted to “back-stabbing” and she still doesn’t know why he did it.

The 51-year-old Madonsela has investigated former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and a range of overspending ministers and officials. Her investigations have seen off at least two ministers – the late Sicelo Shiceka and Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde – as well as police commissioner Bheki Cele.

There have been trials aplenty.

Her former deputy, Advocate Mamiki Shai, reported her to Parliament alleging she was a bully and asking it to probe financial mismanagement in Madonsela’s office. Her allegations were later dismissed.

Madonsela’s appearances at the justice committee have seen regular clashes with the ANC’s John Jeffery, now the deputy justice minister. There, she has consistently defended her refusal to answer his questions about why she chooses to investigate certain cases, on the grounds of her constitutionally enshrined “operational independence”.

There have been other low points, too.

“I also didn’t expect a minister [Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande] to issue a statement that blatantly says I support a particular political party – the DA – and get away with it,” she said.

“Let me just say that the politics have not been expected. My predecessors warned me there would be times when people don’t greet you.”

Statements like these, she says, are “confusing” and impact on the “trustworthiness” of he office. “You dent an image of an institution one bit at a time,” she says.

Madonsela speaks of the “arrogance of incumbency”, of “politicians assuming that they are the people”.

“Nobody is the people. I am not the people. The people are the people. Once every five years, they [the people] elect people to represent them but it doesn’t mean that every time the representatives speak, they know best what the people want.”

Does she feel she is struggling to hold on to her job?

“Well, I haven’t gone away so far … so, no, I am not struggling to hold on to my job,” she says. “But I do feel there have been shenanigans.”

Born in Joburg in 1962 to informal traders, Madonsela completed a BA Law at the University of Swaziland, and then did her LLB at Wits. In the mid-90s, she was appointed as one of 11 technical experts who helped the Constitutional Assembly draft the final Constitution.

She says when Zuma appointed her in 2009, he said he did “not want a Public Protector who looks at who complained or who was being accused”.

“I always go back to that and remind myself that my team and I should do a thorough job in establishing the facts. And once we’ve found the facts, we should follow [them] and the law, and related principles. We shouldn’t be looking at who the parties are …”

As for what will follow her seven-year nonrenewable tenure, Madonsela is considering writing, conducting training around ombudsmanship, a return to academia or a stint at the

Bar in constitutional litigation.

Perhaps those positions will be less lonely.

“I don’t know if I have lost comrades. All I know is that suddenly my name has disappeared from literally every government invitation list … My name has just disappeared from their databases. Maybe a computer deleted my name. I think it got lost,” she giggles.

“It saddens me that people do not appreciate that we have a common interest. I believe that if my body is sick and someone gives me bitter medicine, it is because they love me.”

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