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Still advancing justice

In a far-reaching interview, JEAN MEIRING talks to Thuli Madonsela about her current role as Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University and her previous one as Public Protector.

Thuli Mandosela in front of the Law Faculty housed in the Ou Hoofgebou.

ON A BLISTERING afternoon in November 2022, I’m ushered into what years ago, when I was still a student, was the office of the dean of the law faculty of Stellenbosch University (SU). Now it houses Thulisile Nomkhosi Madonsela, surely the faculty’s most recognisable professor ever and even more of a celebrity than the king of contract law JC de Wet was in his heyday. I savour the refreshing chill of the Ou Hoofgebou, since its construction in 1886 the trademark of SU and its antecedents. With perhaps less diffidence than I might have mustered in that space some decades ago, through narrowed eyes I peer at the bookshelves of the current, inaugural, incumbent of the faculty’s Law Trust Chair in Social Justice.

To the right is a wall of law reports from the Supreme Court of the USA; to the left, a more diverse assortment of titles, mostly in paperback. Almost crowded out by more earnest tomes, stands Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s The Republic of Gupta. Propped against the spines of the books are several certificates emblazoned with SU’s insignia, congratulating Thuli on her success as a media icon at the institution – a ‘thought leader’ in today’s jargon.

My date for the afternoon, I’m told apologetically by a junior faculty officer, is attending a virtual meeting under the auspices of the World Bank, the timing of which had gone spectacularly awry. I say, quite honestly, that I have no qualms about waiting, a bit like Liz Truss might have done had the queen been delayed for that sole, fateful meeting of theirs only two months before.

When Thuli Madonsela enters a bit later, she does so quietly and with considerable grace and poise, in a bright royal-blue blouse and a black coat with white playing card diamonds trellised across it (next page). When I see the large pearls around her neck and a brooch pinned to her left shoulder, I direct an unspoken note to self: the tie, after all, was a good idea.

We settle down at a round table, Thuli repeating her apology for our late start and for the fact that, inexplicably, she’s been struck by a case of the sniffles. “During the World Bank meeting, my eyes even started watering,” she observes bemusedly. “I was literally crying.”

She’d had the good sense to switch off her device’s camera just in time. Yet some might say the World Bank could have done with seeing tears shed by a social justice professor-in-transit from the global south. The news had been announced only a few weeks earlier, on 11 October 2022, that the Chair Thuli had held since its creation in January 2018 is transmuting into the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), with her as its first director.

The announcement came on the eve of the fourth Social Justice Summit, a conference of Thuli’s creation where speakers from a range of backgrounds and disciplines engage with the challenges that our country continues to face in trying to bring about social justice in its still deeply unequal self – perhaps ironically, perhaps aptly, nowhere more visible than in Stellenbosch. The role of the CSJ will be, among other things, to advance social justice scholarship and awareness, including through collaboration between the academy and broader society.

On that very theme of changes, I ask Thuli – by now on a gentle but unstoppable roll – how the move was for her from the office of the Public Protector, which she had vacated in October 2016 and where she had constantly been in the gaze of the world’s paparazzi, to the some might say rather dowager-like Ou Hoofgebou, the prying lenses replaced by the odd inquisitive squirrel.

“You know,” she observes, “it was much easier than I’d thought it would be. I thought it was going to be a bit of a struggle: language, culture. I expected it to be exceptionally conservative. But the truth is that Stellenbosch is very vibrant.
“It is a highly intellectual, thoughtful place. It’s an open-minded institution, which is not easily moved by every new idea. Indeed, institutions of this kind are served well by an element of conservatism, of rootedness, of scrutinising very carefully new ideas that are not yet fully tested.”

She looks me squarely in the eye, as if by way of a challenge: “It’s far more exciting being here than I thought it would be.”

What indeed, I wonder out loud, impelled her to take up this offer over the many others made upon her leaving the role of Public Protector, including from the World Bank and numbering among them at least one vice-chancellorship.

“I had decided that, going forward, I would focus on social justice. Often conversations about, for example, corruption fall on deaf ears when people are poor. To save democracy, we have to deepen social justice.

“Stellenbosch had taken a lead in this regard. It was the only university that was, at the time they approached me, creating a chair in social justice. That chair was at the heart of the strategy of the university. For me to take up a post of this kind was far better than becoming the dean of a law school or, worse still, a vice-chancellor. Here, I’m in direct contact with students. I can make a real change.” It was a rather different South Africa in which Thuli grew up and was herself a student. She was born in 1962, in Soweto. Her father, Bafana, had strong Swazi roots but grew up in Mpumalanga, “among Swazis”. Her mother, Nomasonto, hailed from KwaZulu-Natal.

The family lived in the suburb of Dlamini, where they still have a family home. When Thuli was a year shy of having to enter school, her mother was an informal trader selling snacks at a local school, Nonto Primary. With a sly glance, Thuli adds, “I accompanied her to work, but I wasn’t registered as a student, yet I still sometimes read that I attended that school.”

In fact, she was schooled in what was then Swaziland, to where the family had relocated, matriculating in 1979 from the Evelyn Baring High School in Nhlangano in the south-west of the kingdom. When, in the course of her school years, her mother returned to South Africa, she refused to follow. Rather, with her grandmother and cousin, she would make up the administration of what was essentially a child-headed household.

“Swazi is closer to Zulu than Zulu is to Xhosa. It’s a bit like Zulu with salad dressing on.”

From 1980 to 1983, she stayed on at Evelyn Baring as a teaching assistant in science, before, in 1984, commencing her studies for a BA degree, with subjects like sociology and political science, at the University of Swaziland. She obtained that degree in 1987.

“This is not what I really intended to do. I’d always preferred to do law. During the holidays I came to Soweto and started working for the trade unions. Yet I recall one of our lecturers giving us an assignment: what would happen, the question was posed, if Mandela were to be released. Of course, that reality wasn’t that far in the future. It was amazing when suddenly it did become a reality.”

She then enrolled for an LLB degree at Wits, which was awarded in 1990. “It truly was a remarkable place. People who stand out to me were, among others, Van der Vyver, Dugard, Unterhalter, and Ellison Kahn, who was quite old by then.”
She brightens at the recollection. “I recall at a law dinner, I had a photo taken with Kahn. It was so nice to do that with someone who’d written one of the books we studied from.” After completing the LLB, she worked for a company in the construction industry as a legal advisor and at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits.

In 1994, when the party lists were being assembled for seats in parliament, Thuli was approached to be included on the ANC’s list.

The role of the CSJ will be, among other things, to advance social justice scholarship and awareness, including through collaboration between the academy and broader society.

“I asked that I not be included. I was never a political animal. I’d only ever been the secretary of the Dlamini Civic Association.” She giggles, suppressing a sniffle. “My biggest political achievement had been having a robot installed in Dlamini.”

And then she adds firmly, “I really never had any political ambitions. I didn’t dream of that. My skill set and passions were geared to advancing justice in other ways.”

Yet, having been involved in the constitution-writing process, Thuli allowed Dullah Omar, then the Minister of Justice, to draw her into government as a civil servant and eventually, in 1997, she became the chief director of transformation and equity. After fulfilling several other roles, she spent three years at the Law Reform Commission, to which then President Mbeki had appointed her in 2007.

“In the first place, I’d wanted to be a lawyer so that I could change the law. I was very content there. I thought I’d be at the commission for the rest of my career.”

However, it was while she was still there that she was persuaded to apply for the role of Public Protector. “I really didn’t think I was the strongest contender. As I arrived for the interview in parliament, someone even asked me, ‘What are you doing here?’”

Amused, Thuli adds, “In the interview, the DA, I recall, asked me, ‘You’re so nice, do you think you can do this job?’”

The rest, as they say, is well-thumbed history, recorded in an encyclopaedia of horror, each volume bearing a colourful title, including the reports ‘Against the Rules’, ‘Secure in Comfort’, ‘State of Capture’ – tomes that, with a bit of literary editing, might surely sit cosily cheek-by-jowl with The Republic of Gupta in her own bookcase.

Inevitably, the central narratorial voice in them all is that of a woman to whom, in 2009, then President Zuma gave a non-renewable tenure of seven years as Public Protector – ‘a functionary that was not initially seen as the main anti-corruption agency in government, but by way of accident came to fill that gap’ – and who at first, perhaps as part of the president’s plan, was thought to be a soft touch.

Yet soon the until then comparatively unknown Thuli Madonsela rose Boudicca-like against what seemed to be an unstoppable tide. When the ‘Secure in Comfort’ report, on then President Zuma’s expenditure at Nkandla, appeared in March 2014, “we didn’t think it would be such a turning point,” she observes.

“We thought that, as he had done once before, he would make a type of apology, like that he hadn’t realised he wasn’t entitled to spend as he had. It was the arrogance of those advising the president – someone I’d met before and had found very affable – that truly shocked me.”

Thuli Madonsela with Jean Meiring

History will have the final say, but at this juncture it does seem that, as Public Protector, Thuli had more than just courage: she produced considerably greater results than the queen of the Iceni against the Romans.

As ever, deprecating her own achievements, she interjects, “But the catchy titles weren’t my idea. At a conference presented in Canada by the Ontario Ombud, the advice was given that one should provide each report with a distinctive name that would be easy to remember. It was a simple tool of communication.

“The staff loved it. The investigator would give their report a name. Very often the name wouldn’t be changed before publication.”

We return to Stellenbosch, her new home. Thuli tells excitedly of the faculty’s course in administrative law for state functionaries. “It’s a great success. But it’s a pity that it is lawyers who attend. The non-lawyer functionaries also need these skills. The lawyers should only become involved later.”

I enquire, gingerly, how she finds Stellenbosch students, after a year of, to say the least, unfortunate occurrences on campus.

“I’m enjoying them immensely. It’s a two-way exchange. My involvement with them doesn’t concern only book learning, but also life skills. The young ones have a different perspective on things.” It is quite plain that Thuli herself lives by a belief in the two-way traffic of education and that she learns amply from SU’s students.

It is rare to see her in a social media posting not surrounded by students, whether at formal academic events or at those, for example, associated with the #Action4Inclusion campaign, set up by students and faculty under the aegis of the Social Justice Chair, to counteract the financial exclusion of students from SU.

As we limber up for an impromptu photo-shoot, Thuli remarks, “I’m an optimistic person. Life has proven me right, I think. Things have always turned out for the better. It was Martin Luther King Junior who said, ‘The arc of the moral universe always bends towards justice.’”

As I leave the Ou Hoofgebou, into a wall of heat, for a moment I’m a student again and I’d just had my photo taken with someone of real importance. V