No Longer Whispering to Power: The Story of Thuli Madonsela

Thandeka GQUBULE, No Longer Whispering to Power: The Story of Thuli Madonsela (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2017)

Her whispering was so pronounced that Thuli Madonsela’s media appearances were often all but inaudible. This was in stark contrast to the power and importance of her judgments as Public Protector for seven critical years during which South Africa was captured by the corrupt, criminal and opportunistic architects of a ‘patronage-drenched system’. Her telling reports were heard loud and clear by an increasingly angry citizenry.

Journalist Thandeka Gqubule, who occasionally dabbles in over-purple prose, summarises Madonsela’s story as that of ‘all of us who seek a just and more equitable society’. Gqubule characterises Madonsela, grounded in strong principles and faith, as a symbol of hope for South Africa personifying jurisprudence based on ubuntu and Imago Dei. She carries with her an air of calm equanimity and determination, which has made her crusade for the rule of law and adherence to the Constitution all the more effective. This studied approach was sharpened during her months at Diepkloof Prison in the 1980s as a political detainee.

Admirable personal attributes aside, Madonsela’s stellar performance is linked by Gqubule to her triple roots in trade unionism, the United Democratic Front and student politics at University of the Witwatersrand in the 1980s. In their narrative, power is a facilitating mechanism for the general public good and attainment of social and economic justice. Democracy is always a work in progress. And Madonsela’s commitment to the Constitution is surely not unconnected to her role in helping to draft it.

Her antagonists were a politico-economic elite using democracy to acquire unbridled power for personal gain in a Mafia-type state dominated by the ANC’s Zupta faction. No one has done more to challenge it than Madonsela with her investigations into state capture, financial malfeasance at Nkandla, and corruption at Transnet and the SABC, all covered in detail in this excellent book.

Madonsela’s tenure as Public Protector is a reminder that those in public high office must be transitory custodians acting in the interests of the nation – the person in the street Madondela endearingly labels Gogo Dlamini – against the depredations of the venal and malign. During her tenure as Public Protector Madonsela made her ‘office a fierce tool through which the common person could hold unbridled power to account’. The desperation of her critics is amply illustrated by evidence of an assassination attempt against her; while she was routinely libelled as a foreign agent.

The message of Madonsela’s tenure as Public Protector is uplifting to the extent that it reminds South Africans of the primacy of values and principle over position and status and the relationship between law and all forms of justice. Her gift to South Africa was that rarity – the unvarnished truth. Fittingly, there is an indigenous role model among the Venda people: Makhadzi (aunt) a female leader and conscience of the people who advises the king and is ignored ‘at his own peril’.

Gqubule points out that Madonsela has carried our burden heroically, but leaves open the question whether the notoriously complacent South African public is up to the challenge of preserving her legacy and that of the struggle against apartheid. The vacuum of civic morality that has made possible a captured state is after all a responsibility of all South Africans. The precise answer will lie in the ANC’s internal elections this coming December and the general election in two years’ time.