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‘Follow your heart, whatever you do’

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This Women's Month, we feature resilient women of SA who aspire to greatness. Here Nidha Narrandes chats to Thuli Madonsela

Former public protector Thuli Madonsela File picture: EPA

After being named in Time Magazine’s Top 100 most influential people in the world, her response was simply, “I am humbled”. And though it might sound clichéd, when you speak to Thulisile Madonsela you realise she really does epitomise humility.

South Africa has always been gifted with powerful, influential women over the course of our history. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Ruth First, Albertina Sisulu, Helen Joseph, Helen Suzman. The list never ends, and to it the name of Madonsela will be added. And she’d deserve it.

For the rest of this year she will call Harvard University her home, while she completes a year-long fellowship that centres around issues like social justice, inequality and reducing poverty.

Despite the momentary detachment from public life in South Africa, Madonsela’s impact is still felt as strongly as when she delivered a significant blow to corruption and cronyism, with her “State of Capture” report. It will go down in history, along with the leaked Gupta emails, as a watershed moment in South Africa’s political history – and it took a strong woman to start the great unravelling.

During her time as the public protector, Madonsela has had to endure some of the most incredible abuse and attacks on her character and being a woman didn’t make it easier. It doesn’t get much more intense than criticism from the office of the Presidency. Still the office of the Public Protector stood steadfast under Madonsela’s watch, and it has much to do with the character of the woman herself.

Madonsela doesn’t take kindly to bullying, and is able to counter aggression with a quiet strength. “Always maintain your space graciously. Those things will happen. What is important is to always remain in integrity with your own values and principles. Don’t let those attacks turn you into a bully yourself. We feel that because we feel small we will make other people feel small in return.”

Madonsela’s report is being challenged in court by President Jacob Zuma. Critics of the report have challenged Madonsela’s methods and motives, but Madonsela was unfazed and left her position as public protector with a proud record.

“Even if you are attacked, don’t hate people. If you found me in the company of people who have attacked me, you would not believe they are the same people. You will think we’ve always been the best of friends. I never allowed it to poison my life,” she says with grace.

Madonsela was born in Soweto in 1962 to parents who were informal traders. She graduated with a BA in law from University of Swaziland in 1987 and a LLB from Wits University in 1990. She has since accumulated a number of honorary doctorates along the way.

“My mother was my main role model and mentor. Teachers and women in my church also played a part in shaping me particularly during my formative years. I was also fortunate to meet and be mentored over a period of time by Mama Albertina Sisulu, whose house I used to visit as a young girl,” Madonsela says.

“Priscilla Jana was the first female lawyer I ever met. I was inspired by her work and her willingness to take up a case I referred to her as a young law student, which resulted in her rescuing a group of young persons from Bekkersdal, that were on death row due to a judgment I believed to be unjust.

“There were many others that shaped my character one of them being Mama Ivy Matsepe-Casaburi who taught me that that aggressiveness does not improve an argument and quite contrary, it undermines a good point.”

Madonsela stayed close to the Struggle against apartheid, and eventually was on the team that drafted the final constitution. She later refused an ANC MP post under Nelson Mandela, choosing instead to join the South African Law Reform Commission.

“The key to success is doing what you believe in and acting purposefully and authentically. Undertake every responsibility and every task with passion and integrity even if that’s not where you’d like to be and believe you deserve better. Excelling in humble responsibilities opens the door to greater and more worthy roles in life,” she says.

In 2012, Madonsela investigated “kickbacks” received by EFF leader Julius Malema in connection with contracts between the Limpopo traffic department and On-Point Engineering. Her priorities sat with the people, and her office not only went after politicians, but unscrupulous businesses too. From the start, she insisted on being independent and on performing her duties “without fear or favour”, and for that she sometimes paid the price, with abuse from all corners. Still she was unbowed.

“Use the storms of life to build your strength and rise higher. When storms arise, know that such is part of life and the process of shaping and strengthening you as a leader – like gold is perfected by fire and diamonds by pressure.

“Never allow injustice and related suffering to harden you but rather let such deepen your compassion as a leader and ability to lead for common good,” Madonsela says with wisdom in her voice.

Arguably her most trying time in office came about in 2014 when she blew the lid on state expenditure on Zuma’s private residence at Nkandla. Called “Secure in Comfort”, Madonsela’s report caused outrage among the general public and media, directed at Zuma and those complicit in the scandal.

“Don’t worry about being odd or having a questioning mind. It is the oddballs that change the world and it is those that have the audacity to ask hard questions that help find answers to difficult challenges in life,” Madonsela says, like a mentor advising her younger self. “In all things, trust that your creator has your back and that even the toughest of times will not only end but will leave you on higher ground.”

At the time Madonsela demonstrated tremendous courage. It is one of the requirements of the job, but also as a woman in a powerful position.

“Always stay firm with the values, with your mission and your vision of what needs to be achieved. And more more importantly engage people with what’s right and wrong.

“That is something I have always done, whether it was dealing with my team, stakeholders or the attackers,” she says. “I have always appealed to their sense of values. I say to them that if you value this, your conduct needs to reflect it.”

In balancing work and home, because there is always an unfair expectation on women to have a fair balance between the two, Madonsela advises women to make it work for them.

“We are warriors. We are also soft and kind and we must use all of these powers to our advantage. There is no such thing as balance. If you try and find balance you are going to be trying to do something impossible. Give everything important in your life the amount of time it needs.”

When the interview ends you are left feeling like you are capable of achieving the impossible. With her kind, calm and reassuring voice, Madonsela is the woman all women should look up too. She is unafraid to let her femininity shine and unafraid to take on adversity and turn it into triumph. [email protected]