This article was first published in the 05 September 2019 edition of YOU.
She thought she’d feel euphoric, on a total high.
Surely nothing could beat standing at the top of Africa’s highest peak and looking out over one of the planet’s most breathtaking views. But as Thuli Madonsela stood on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania everything was a blur – that’s because the stress she’d placed her body under to reach the top had caused the former public protector to go partially blind.
In fact, on the last day it was touch and go as to whether she’d even complete the Trek4Mandela expedition. With her legs wobbling and her vision so limited she couldn’t see much in front of her, she was advised to give up and return to camp. Thuli refused. She hadn’t spent four days climbing the mountain to turn back at the last hurdle.
But the thing really pushing her on was the knowledge that she’d taken on the climb for the charity Caring4Girls – a programme that aims to raise enough funds to allow a million girls to get much-needed access to sanitary towels to ensure they don’t miss a day of school.
“All I needed was to get up there, because we can’t ask girls to do things that we’re not prepared to do,” Thuli (56) says. “If you’re thrown a curveball, find an alternative way to reach your purpose.” It’s this kind of fighting spirit that has helped her conquer so many other proverbial mountains – from taking on former president Jacob Zuma to helping lift the lid on state capture.
So the powerhouse wasn’t about to let a 5 895m-high mountain get the better of her. “I really didn’t want to disappoint the girls, but also I knew that other than being partially blind, I was fine,” she says.
When Thuli committed to the project last year, social entrepreneur and Trek4Mandela expedition organiser Richard Mabaso encouraged her and the 22 other climbers in her group who summited to find their personal reason for climbing Kili – something other than the worthy charity project they were supporting.
“Richard told us that we must decide what our why is. Doing it for the girls is excellent, but also find which mountain inside yourself you want to conquer,” Thuli says. After some soul-searching there was one thing that stood out for her. “I climbed the mountain for social justice.”
Since vacating her position as public protector, she’s been involved in social justice initiatives through the Thuli Madonsela Foundation and in her role as the law faculty trust chair for social justice at the University of Stellenbosch. And it was this driving vision that helped steer her when her weak legs and sight threatened to cut short her climb.
Thuli says she had to dig deep to, “find a way inside myself to make my body work with my brain”. She’d spent months preparing by training and climbing smaller mountains on South African soil. Thuli knew it was going to be a gruelling climb but she thought she was prepared so she was stunned when her body failed her.
But she says it was her own fault because she ignored advice to consume plenty of carbs during the trek. Instead of carb-loading, Thuli ate just almonds and chicken during the trek and only 30g of the nuts on the morning of the final push to the top. Luckily, a doctor was able to pinpoint that she was suffering from glucose deficiency (a condition that occurs when the body doesn’t have enough of the enzyme glucose-6 phosphate dehydrogenase).
After consuming every sugary snack expedition leader and renowned mountaineer Sibusiso Vilane could find, she felt a bit better and was able to carry on climbing. Although she needed to be guided because her sight was still blurry, things slowly started coming back into focus.
“Rocks that previously looked like snowflakes started looking like rocks again, the only difference being that I couldn’t make out whether they were flat or sharp. And when there was a ditch I couldn’t tell its depth.” This reminded her of a hateful comment made by a Twitter troll who’d said they hoped she’d fall into a ditch in Tanzania, die and not come back.
“So when I couldn’t see, I kept worrying I’d fall into a ditch,” she says with a laugh. Thuli refuses to let remarks like that get her down. “I just think people are sad and scared – it’s not personal. It’s only broken people who try to break other people.” She didn’t get to fully appreciate the view from Uhuru Peak due to her limited vision when they summited on Women’s Day last month, but Thuli says what she experienced earlier on the trek was enough to make it feel worthwhile.
“It’s beautiful,” she says, “For quite a while it’s a walk in the park in a beautiful forest, then you walk into a semi desert, then into a desert. “Meanwhile you see mountains and then you see Kili itself from a distance . . . The glacier is beautiful and the sunsets are to die for.
While Thuli was preparing to conquer Kili, back home public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, was facing a mountain of challenges as she squared up against President Cyril Ramaphosa, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and the courts. Thuli says it’s not her place to judge her successor.
“She needs to move on from where I ended and there’s no point in her being like me or any other person.” Having occupied the office for seven years, Thuli knows how difficult and demanding it can be. But she doesn’t want to dwell on that now. She explains that one of the metaphorical goals her group had while doing the climb was to let go of things that were limiting them from moving forward.
“For me the things I needed to bury were the past, forgiving where I need to forgive and claiming this new life I’m trying to live of getting South Africans to the party on social justice,” she says. “I’m one of those people who has been at the forefront of collecting the fruits of democracy, but these fruits are not ours; these are the fruits that were fought for by women like Mama Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Mandela, Helen Joseph, etc.
“The question that bothers me every day is what are we doing for the ones behind us? Because the ones before us have made it possible for me to be a public protector, a professor, and to do all of these things.” A new life for Thuli also involves a journey to the altar. She announced her engagement to public relations consultant Dick Foxton (76) last year, and says she’s waiting for the work dust to settle before they set a date for the wedding.
There’s more happening on the personal front. Thuli, who’s the mother of social entrepreneurs Wantu (30) and Wenzile Msimanga (28), is revelling in her new role as grandmother to one-year-old Melokuhle. “It’s been fantastic just seeing the little one and seeing my daughter happy.”
And now having conquered Kili she’s planning to return again next year to do it all over again – this time with enough carbs in her system so she can appreciate the view when she gets to the top.