BOOK EXTRACT: ‘2009: An orchestra of manoeuvres’

Thuli Madonsela has been one of the most valued and active social justice crusaders of our time. Shy and softly spoken, she had been active in human rights, academic and gender circles for a while before her election to the position of Public Protector of the Republic of South Africa in October 2009.

It is true that important and legendary institutions need powerful and wise leadership. It is also true that, when she was appointed, the office was neither legendary nor powerful. Her election, however, was to make it both.

Those who knew the new Public Protector warned those who did not: If you haven’t heard of her, you will. What they knew, which most did not, is that Madonsela hides her power inside a velvet glove. Her trademark equanimity is part of an arsenal of fighting tools. She had seen the blood on the streets of Soweto and the inside of one of South Africa’s most notorious prisons, and had remained uncompromisingly calm.

If 2008 had been an annus horribilis for former South African president Thabo Mbeki, then 2009 was an annus mirabilis for his nemesis and successor, Jacob Zuma. For Thuli Madonsela, 2009 was the year of opportunity.

Journalists in 2008 and 2009 had much to write about – political infighting in high places, and all forms of intrigue and skulduggery. In March 2008, one of them would write, ‘For the scum of society, the year 2008 is not one of doom and gloom but rather of boom and glory, courtesy of the new ANC leadership under Zuma’s stewardship.’ Jacob Zuma was inaugurated for his first term as president of South Africa in May 2009. At his inauguration, he took the following oath: ‘I solemnly and sincerely promise that I will promote all that advances the interests of South Africa and oppose all that may harm it, so help me God.’

He was sworn in by former human rights crusader Chief Justice Pius Langa. The relationship between the late Langa and Zuma was cool, begrudging, but cordial. It showed on the day: there was no warmth in Langa’s congratulatory handshake, and his face wore a look of foreboding. After an impressive flyover above the Union Buildings and a gun salute to mark the changing of the guard and herald a new administration in Pretoria, Zuma began with a largely unimpressive address.

It was a prophetic address, all the same. In it, he said that ‘the dreams and hopes of all the people of our country must be fulfilled’, for these could not be delayed or deferred. He also said that there was ‘no place for complacency, no place for cynicism, no place for excuses’. His speech noted that the global economic slowdown was a concern and predicted that our country a would not be spared the adverse effects of the economic headwinds that were ranging through the world.

Afterwards, the so-called man of the people left the stage to mingle with the dignitaries – royalty, heads of state and global celebrities – who had gathered to witnesses his miraculous ascendance.

Then, the rain poured down and umbrellas came out. The crowds greeted the shower with ululation – after all, rain and rumbling thunder herald the end of lean times and the arrival of times of wealth.

It had been the most inauspicious rise to power. Zuma rose as a man with a stained past who had outwitted his foes – from the time of his rape trial in 2006 to the near-permanent corruption charges that he has managed to duck for the bulk of his presidency, without ever having his day in court.

The road had been strewn with challenges for Jacob Zuma. But, by the time he arrived at the 52nd National Conference of the ANC in Polokwane, Limpopo, in 2007, he had sewn the party up and turned it against his enemies. All that remained to be done at Polokwane was to humiliate and officially dispose of his political rival Mbeki, replace him as head of the ANC, and expunge his supporters from the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC).

On all counts, Zuma and his allies succeeded.

It was a thunderous gathering. There were tears; there was shouting. Intrigue. Conspiracy. It was clear that Zuma had taken the conference by storm and, with it, the ANC. His way to the presidency after the 2009 election was as clear as the highway that had brought him to Polokwane. He had captured, for his own purposes, the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) and the ANC’s women’s and youth leagues. He had also managed to assemble a sinister alliance of characters called the Premier League.

The Premier League is a tripartite alliance of the premiers of the Free State (Ace Magashule), Mpumalanga (David Mabuza) and North West provinces (Supra Mahumapelo). Each premier has been dogged by allegations of corruption.

Journalist and commentator Justice Malala describes Zuma well when he says that ‘[he] might not read – as has been alleged – but that does not mean he does not know what levers have to be cranked to ensure that he never gets inside a court’. Malala goes on to say that Zuma ‘makes gaffes every week and has no idea what constitutionality means. But he is not a fool’.

Malala points out that Zuma knows how to work the levers of power and that, in doing so, he has overseen the most concerted and successful assault on South Africa’s independent institutions since the dawn of its democracy in 1994. So, when Zuma stood up in Parliament in October 2009 and made the seemingly innocuous announcement that Thuli Madonsela had been appointed Public Protector of South Africa, he was unaware that he was inaugurating his nemesis and making his biggest political mistake.

- This extract was taken from No Longer Whispering to Power. The Story of Thuli Madonsela, an unauthorised biography written by Thandeka Gqubule, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()
Voting Booth
Do you think South Africa has descended into a mafia state?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
No, that’s a bit extreme
7% - 414 votes
Yes, and it’s becoming normalised
93% - 5669 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.