Professor Thuli Madonsela has an “open-door” policy to students at Stellenbosch University.Students who have little or no money, she says, must be taught that they should start with themselves. In her new corner office in oak-lined Victoria Street Madonsela greets visitors with a hug and an offer of tea. She frequently travels between Cape Town and Johannesburg and her desk and shelves are still empty, but for a handful of books displayed face-forward. “I still need to unpack; I hope to have it done next time you are here,” she says.Madonsela grew up in Soweto, one of six siblings who slept on the kitchen floor. Her mother was a domestic worker and her father managed a mobile shop.Levelling the playing field has been Madonsela’s key preoccupation from an early age: “I have always been someone who is concerned about social justice, this is what drew me to Marxism as a child, the need to create a more just and equitable world. I think when you are young Marxism seems like the best way to level the playing field. Of course, later you discover that humans are humans … in real life the iron law of oligarchy kicks in.”Leaning back in her chair, a jacket draped over her shoulders to ward off early winter, Madonsela’s gaze is level; her hands folded on her lap.“My experiences as a child brought me here,” she says, gesturing towards the wall. “I learnt early that the world does not simply stay as it is structured; you have the power as humanity to reshape it.” This conviction led her to serve as South Africa’s Public Protector for seven years and now, as social justice chairperson at Stellenbosch University, where her “social justice think-tank” project will aim to curb socioeconomic chasms by building tools and computer applications to measure the effect – and especially the unintended consequences – of national policies.Last month, at a talk at the institution, she offered a rare glimpse of her own student life, relaying how, while studying towards her LLB at Wits University, she failed one exam in intellectual property after attending just one class. “Throughout my life, I’ve always been in the top three in my class. Then as a Wits student, I was working part-time as a telemarketer, I attended just one class for intellectual property. It was a small class and the lecturer noticed and said to me: ‘Are you sure you are in the right class?’ I said ‘Yes, I am sure’,” she says.“So I failed that exam. It traumatised me to the extent that whenever in life I feared failure, I had this recurring horrible dream of failing intellectual property, even while compiling reports as Public Protector. But it taught me that failure is never final, it is a step on the road to success.”Following her tenure in public office, Madonsela was headhunted by the World Bank and turned down a slew of job offers from other universities and law firms to take up office in Stellenbosch on January 10.“Poverty will not reduce by itself, magically”Why then did she choose the university known as the intellectual cradle of apartheid? Where Hendrik Verwoerd studied and served as a professor before cementing apartheid as prime minister?“Well, yes, I thought about it very carefully,” says Madonsela. “Some of the people who started thinking differently were also from here, such as [anti-apartheid activist] Beyers Naudé. Just as Stellenbosch contributed to what it thought was a fair deal for the Afrikaners – realising this was a fatal expense to others – it is now trying to contribute to creating a fair deal for everyone.” She says Stellenbosch University’s transformation is “well under way”. According to official university figures, 24% of its academic staff are African, coloured and Indian; black students on campus have increased from 16.6% in 1996 to 40.1% in 2017.Madonsela says the university made her “a very clear offer”, while other offers were more general and administrative. She is renting a house in Stellenbosch while looking for something more permanent. She is also trying to complete her autobiography, but her gruelling schedule leaves time to write only in the early morning hours between 3 and 6. The book, originally due at the end of last year, will be finished next month. “I think the publishers are a little disappointed. But as with parents who delay the birth of their kids, where does one find the time?”Her think-tank’s first meeting is scheduled in August and its first annual public summit in October. It is backed by Nelson Mandela University, Wits University, University of the Western Cape and Harvard University in the US, and she is talking to Oxford University in the UK. Policy issues it will focus on include information and communications technology and digitalisation, and how poor, rural and old people are slipping off the information highway. “For example,” says Madonsela, “digitalisation of school applications is a good policy meant to make life easier for everyone, it’s meant to stop stampedes, create efficiency for people from afar, and so on. But it’s a one-size-fits-all policy,” she says.“If Gogo Dlamini wants to register her Grade R child, what if she can’t as she simply does’t have the skills or access? So you need a counter policy.“For example, you need to send volunteers to villages and townships to help people register.” Stellenbosch University spokesperson Martin Viljoen says the university offers a hard-copy application option, with rural recruitment drives.It has received 29 021 online and 31 hard applications for next year. Applications close on June 30. “Poverty will not reduce by itself, magically,” says Madonsela, citing the country’s National Development Plan goal to eliminate poverty and inequality by 2030. “Society is a system we have to review entirely and that is what my project will do.”Madonsela said BEE had been bound to fail to restructure South Africa because “one-size-fits-all policies do not work”, often bringing about unintended consequences that exacerbated the very problems they sought to bridge.Instead, she says, South Africa needs policies that will enable people to pull themselves up, giving them a hand along the way; instead of handouts that create a culture of dependence.“In South Africa we are creating inequality with good intentions,” she says.