Former Public Protector: Advocate Thuli Madonsela


Discovery Invest recently paid the picturesque town of Stellenbosch a visit and we were able to connect with former Public Protector and Advocate Thuli Madonsela.

Looking relaxed but just as busy and passionate about human rights as ever in her new post as chair of social justice at the University of Stellenbosch, she admits that she still spends a fair amount of time in Gauteng. “My partner is in Gauteng and my kids are in Pretoria. And of course, I just became a grandmother! My granddaughter is three months old and that’s a good reason to try to get to Pretoria quite often,” she laughs.

Q1: Of all the opportunities that were no doubt available to you, what made you accept the post at Stellenbosch University?

A: It was the only post where I would be focusing purely on social justice. I was approached for dean positions, a vice-chancellor position and the World Bank headhunted me for a position as well as the United Nations. Stellenbosch University almost gave me a blank cheque to work on addressing social injustices. I also looked very carefully at the institution and I’m satisfied that there is genuine commitment on the parts of my colleagues to effect real change.

Q2: What does a typical week in the life of Adv Thuli Madonsela look like? It took us four months to secure a time and date for this interview!

My week consists of a great deal of reading, writing and research, particularly in the weeks when I am lecturing. In the first term, I had a full class on Constitutional Law and now in the second term, I am teaching every two weeks. My classes are very full but I am still easing back into teaching. Next year, I hope to be more involved in course design.

A good deal of my week is spent responding to various requests for commentary on different issues, dealing with speaking engagements and of course, writing my autobiography. I like doing the speaking engagements because I am able to reach both corporates and communities to talk about social injustices.

The reality is that although we have numerous social programmes and CSI initiatives that are making great achievements, there are still pockets of the country that we simply are not reaching. I’m raising awareness among those who can help, so that they can scale their initiatives and ensure that no one is left behind.

Q3: What were some of the bigger challenges you faced as the Public Protector and how did you deal with them?

A: One of the challenges was the politics of an institution that supervises high-profile people and the challenge of building a vehicle as you are moving. You keep stumbling on the truth and improving your investigative methods. You don’t have the luxury of closing shop so you can train everyone and then go back to work. That was very difficult because you are training everyone and implementing at the same time. You also have deadlines that could have serious consequences if they are not met. For example, someone’s home could be repossessed by the bank because you were trying to help them get their job back or get their contract paid out, and you weren’t able to help in time.

The other challenge was the fact that you are not working alone but in a team. They say, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” In the end, we tried to go together and that meant going slowly, because I wasn’t a lone crusader. However, being part of a larger group worked because when there were challenges and political storms, we faced it together as a team. There were trade-offs – moving together as a team slowed the process but it also created a more sustainable movement.

Q4: Do you think you might ever work in public office again? There are those who say “Thuli for President”

A: It’s not my aspiration. I do get a lot of requests about this, both in South Africa and abroad. I believe that whatever I do has to resonate with what I believe is my purpose in life. At this stage, I think the most important thing is raising young leaders and there are so many great ones. Within my portfolio at the Thuli Madonsela Foundation for example, we are running an Epic Leadership programme where we train young people to be ethically driven, impact-conscious and driven to improve society.

I also don’t think people want me to be president for the right reasons. Sometimes we fail to choose horses for courses. A number of people say they want me to be president because I am able to stand my ground. Is that the most important attribute to be president? Certainly not. You need a president who is able to actually do the job. Often people are elected to public office for the wrong attributes. For example, they were good at sportsmanship or they said the right things, but we have to look at their track record in terms of their ability to create the future we want. When it comes to me, people say they have seen me holding others accountable for their decisions – and that’s not the president’s job.

Q5: Tell us about the Thuli Madonsela Foundation – what inspired you to start it and what is your goal?

A: I was inspired by my work as Public Protector and I established the Foundation a year ago. I kick-started the Foundation with my own money and I also channel funds that I earn from speaking engagements towards the Foundation. I wanted to give a voice to the people. What I found is that they have a voice but they need assistance in terms of directing that appropriately. Our slogan is “we make democracy work for all”, because if people can understand the concept of democracy, they can influence what is planted in this democracy. Our target is mostly the disaffected – the young people at universities who have studied and worked hard but now face unemployment.

Democracy Dialogues is one of the programmes we run – where we bring government to the community to hear what their problems are. Then in terms of advocacy, we look at social justice and anti-corruption initiatives. Thirdly, we promote access to opportunities.

Recently we have been doing a great deal of work with youngsters who campaigned for #feesmustfall. They won the battle for their successors but are themselves sitting with massive debts.

Q6: What are your thoughts on the political and economic future of South Africa under new leadership?

A: I think we are poised for great things. The election of President Ramaphosa introduced a positive vibe in many ways. Firstly, when things are not going well, people tend to view any change as a good change. It gives people hope that this might be better than yesterday. Secondly, the statements President Ramaphosa has made since his appointment have only served to consolidate that hope.

However, President Ramaphosa himself has not yet crossed the rubicon. How he chooses to deal with corruption will be of paramount importance. The mistake that might occur is if President Ramaphosa finds a way to deal decisively with the corrupt people who did not support him and then does not deal as decisively with the corrupt among his supporters.  Having said that, I hope he leaves the law enforcement agencies alone.

Q7: What role do you see the private sector playing as we move forward?

A: Government alone cannot achieve the future we want, so the private sector will have to come on board in terms of cleaning up its house. Part of the damage to our brand has come from the private sector. Last year alone in addition to Bell Pottinger, we had the Steinhoff saga, KPMG, Trillian and the Gupta issue. That didn’t look good for Brand South Africa.

The legacy of apartheid is so vast and even as we move forward, there are new forms of inequality that are emerging in society. Inequality is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, inequality creates fractures but on the other hand, inequality undermines our ability to progress. Instead of moving on four legs, we are moving on two because the people that are off the grid are not able to contribute fully to the potential of this team. It’s like having a rugby team where half the players have been benched because they are sick and unable to play.

The private sector has to take a firm stance on corporate governance issues and can also play a bigger role in terms of investing in infrastructure that is required to help us move forward and address inequality.

Q8: What are your thoughts on corporate governance at boardroom level? When we look at recent examples like Steinhoff and Resilient, what do you think could be done differently?

A: We need to do more towards building integrity and showing people the consequences of integrity lapses. Often within companies, all the employees sign the ethics code but there is no reinforcement through training and conversations. Integrity is the hidden dimension to ethics. When companies recruit at senior management level, there should be a demonstrable history of integrity. Just as importantly, from cleaner to company president, everyone should be educated so that they understand the consequences of integrity lapses.

These companies (Steinhoff, Resilient) have suffered the consequences. When you operate without integrity, there is a deferred payment. The thing is that the deferred payment can be so much more traumatic than the initial fallout you are trying so desperately to avoid. Secondly, you don’t go down alone but you take a whole lot of innocent people with you.

These are not bad human beings. They are people who thought “maybe I can just cover it up for today and tomorrow, I will find a way to fix it.”

Q9: What is your advice to financial advisers in terms of their responsibility to society?

The first thing is that whatever you do, make sure you are ethical and you maintain your integrity. Just do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. We’ve seen the consequences of doing the wrong thing: you could lose your job, your company can fall into disrepute, and you cause your clients untold damage, and you could lose your license. Compromising your integrity means putting everything you have ever worked for at risk.

The second thing is that things may not be looking as good as they could, but this country is worth fighting for. South Africa is worth investing in.  I see that South Africa is still on slightly shaky ground but the future looks good and part of that is due to people investing in South Africa and that includes impact investment. That’s where you are selectively investing not just for profit but in projects that address our infrastructure needs. If there’s an opportunity to invest – even if it’s just about putting your skills to use in communities that need financial advice, please come to the table and help uplift the community.


The views expressed in this article are those of Adv Thuli Madonsela and may not necessarily represent those of Discovery Invest. This article is meant only as information and should not be taken as financial advice. For tailored financial advice, please contact your financial adviser. Discovery Life Investment Services Pty (Ltd): Registration number 2007/005969/07, branded as Discovery Invest, is an authorised financial services provider.

Additional notes

Adv Madonsela served as Public Protector of South Africa from 2009 to 2016. She holds honorary doctorates in law from the universities of Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Fort Hare and Rhodes University. She has also been the recipient of the following awards:

  • The Law Society of South Africa’s inaugural Truth and Justice Award 2016
  • The German Africa Foundation annual prize 2016.
  • Transparency International’s Integrity Award 2014.
  • Listed as one of TIME magazine’s top 100 most influential people in the world in 2014.
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