The law is where I belong

2011-07-09 16:49

When Thuli Madonsela told her parents she was planning to enrol in law school, they were happy.

But when they told the family pastor from the Seventh Day Adventist church in Soweto, he wasn’t impressed.

It was 1980s South Africa and the man of God spent days trying to persuade the Madonselas to stop their daughter from following a career path in which she would defend criminals.

“Lawyers were not seen as ­decent people. At that stage, the notion of a lawyer was of someone who defended criminals,” says Madonsela.

But Madonsela, who is now the country’s Public ­Protector, says she has no regrets about following her heart.

“I think this is where I was meant to be. I feel like naturally I was meant to do all the things that I’ve done,” she says after we meet at her office in Hatfield, ­Pretoria, on Friday afternoon.

She says growing up in Soweto in the 60s and 70s exposed her to the reality of how ordinary citizens were often denied justice.

Her late parents, Bafana and ­Nomasonto, were informal traders, and often found themselves at odds with the law as a result of strict trading licences and permits.

She remembers when she was four and her mother was arrested for selling sweets at a school ­without a permit.

“My father would often tell us about representing himself in court whenever they were ­arrested. Their goods would be taken away and there were often issues about pass laws,” ­Madonsela explains.

It’s been a rather hectic week for Madonsela, who on Wednesday woke up to the news that she was facing imminent arrest over allegations of fraud and corruption.

But she shows very few signs of strain after a series of meetings, addressing a media briefing and fielding interview after interview.

Lawyers are often dry and devoid of a sense of humour. They are perceived as dour sticklers for detail with little time for idle ­chitchat.

Madonsela seems to be a legal mind cut from a different cloth.

In fact, while some lawyers can seem intimidating, cold and brash, Madonsela radiates a warmth that makes one wonder if she wasn’t perhaps better suited to the world of social work.

She says her mother acted as an informal social worker, often ­being called on to resolve problems in the community.
Madonsela’s roots are firmly rooted in the community.

At 18, she taught biology and physics to matriculants at Naledi High School, where she was a ­temporary teacher.

Between 1992 and 1993 she was secretary of the Dhlamini Civic Association and an executive member of the Soweto Civic ­Association. She was also active in the trade union movement, where she offered legal advice.

One of her career highlights was being involved in the drafting of the country’s Constitution ­between 1994 and 1996, an experience she describes as fulfilling.

Her work as Public Protector means she often has to investigate cases against her former comrades. But she is quick to point out she will take on any case regardless of who is involved.

“It’s human nature that people don’t like to be investigated. I can’t just not investigate because I know this person and we used to struggle side by side,” she says.

On Wednesday she was even more defiant, telling a media briefing: “I have a job to do and will continue to do it to the best of my ability. I will not stop speaking truth to power. I will not stop operating on the basis of independence, impartiality and the dictates of the Constitution.”

But it is the cases involving ­ordinary citizens that give her even greater reason to keep going.

“If I can make one ordinary ­citizen feel better about life each day then to me that is a life worth living,” she says.

She speaks softly while articulating her views with the accuracy of her training. But her sense of humour wins through.

“I’m sitting here, at this stage, not knowing when I get out of that door if the police will be waiting for me,” she said to ripples of laughter from the press corps, in response to a question about recent investigations into her work.

Madonsela is a self-confessed workaholic who enjoys pressure and often takes work home, but says she’s trying to rehabilitate herself.

She enjoys spending time with her children – Mbusowabantu (22) and Wenzile (19) – and cooking for them.

She swears she makes a mean prawn curry but is also quick to confess that her ­children often remind her she’s not the best cook.

“But I’m improving,” she says with a laugh.

She loves reading but when she really wants to unwind she goes to the movies.

And she says she is deeply spiritual and makes a point of never missing a service at Hatfield Christian Church.

Amen to that!

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