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South Africa Protector of the Powerless Is Nation's Most Powerful Person

  • Anita Powell

South Africa's public protector enjoys a formidable reputation -- and higher approval ratings than her boss, President Jacob Zuma. Thuli Madonsela has grabbed headlines in South Africa in the last few years for exposing government wrongdoing -- and recently, spearing the president himself in a major corruption scandal. And her fame is spreading: she was recently named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people, sharing the honor with the likes of Beyonce and Hillary Clinton. But how did this soft-spoken academic become a fearless voice for the voiceless?

Thuli Madonsela never expected fame coming from a humble upbringing in the then-segregated township of Soweto. She started her career as a teacher.

But she's became South Africa's most powerful public figure- when she issued a scathing corruption report on the president. "Whilst there was authority, the authority was exceeded," she said.

Madonsela is South Africa's public protector, a job she has performed with surprising vigor since President Zuma appointed this lawyer in 2009. But her calm demeanor belies a reputation as the most tenacious person to ever hold the office.

Her March report to Zuma concluded he misused $23 million of public funds for upgrades to his private home. "I'm also requesting the president to pay a reasonable percentage of the cost of the measures," she noted.

Her courage has won her many fans, including, Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A 2013 poll found 64 percent of South Africans trust her - whereas only 45 percent trust politicians.

Anti-corruption activist David Lewis said Madonsela sets the gold standard. "She has achieved the status, and deservedly so, of an icon defending the South African constitution and delivering justice, and that's great," he stated.

But for Madonsela, it's the little victories that matter. "The cases that I enjoy most are where there are administrative failures, when you see a smile on somebody's face after you have unlocked a service that they deserved," she explained.

She said naming corrupt officials doesn't give her happiness. "Because it is sad to find somebody guilty of corruption, it is sad to suggest to an institution… that somebody has to be disciplined and possibly fired. I don't necessarily enjoy that," she said. "But I have to do it because if we don't do that, the systems are going to collapse."

Her Zuma report has provoked the ANC (African National Congress party) to call for her resignation.

But opposition leader Helen Zille said Madonsela's role is critical - and her honesty sadly rare in politics. "She's the poster woman of what an independent institution in a democracy should be," said Zille.

Madonsela is unfazed by criticism and veiled ANC political threats. "However, members of my family do worry. Sometimes they worry more than me about these security issues, especially when I'm dealing with the difficult cases," she added.

She said her career, including a role in writing South Africa's constitution, has left her with only one regret. "I don't regret not going to Harvard. Of course I would have loved to do both: constitution drafting and going to Harvard. The only regret I have as a human being is that, because I've always combined community work with my professional work, I haven't had enough time to be there for my children," she stated.

Thoughtful, modest, soft-spoken - hardly a recipe for success. But Thuli Madonsela uses those qualities to speak truth to power.

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