As a new award-winning documentary reveals, she’s the standard every public servant and citizen can look up to.

As the community, angry residents who discovered their funds had been looted, howled and threw accusations at each other, she stood up and told them in her distinctive, quiet yet firm manner: 

“Don’t be so divided. Stop fighting. Get united, so that you don’t get people coming in and stealing your money.”

It’s a remarkable scene, capturing this public servant’s gravitas, patience and empathy all at once. You can see their pain reflected in her face, but she’s not about to let emotions cloud her judgement. At this point, it’s hard to argue that Thulisile “Thuli” Madonsela or Mama Thuli as some of the community call her, is not one of the most iconic and inspiring South Africans in our country’s history.

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“Thuli Madonsela has in many ways been an exemplar of the good public servant,” says Prof Penelope Andrews, former Dean of UCT’s Faculty of Law and now Host of the South Africa Reading Group at New York Law School. “She is fearless, tenacious and principled and she was prepared to become very unpopular with the ruling powers. She has raised the bar.”

Champion of the people

Madonsela has absolutely rattled the powers that be, something which is clear from the new award-winning documentary, Whispering Truth to Power, now streaming exclusively on Showmax. While it’s certainly not necessary to give South Africans a recap of Madonsela’s role in fighting corruption and bringing down the dubious administration of former President Jacob Zuma, this captivating documentary is a reminder of those times and the knife-edge the country balanced on.

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Though there are other parties to be thanked as well, Madonsela takes centre stage as an uncompromising yet savvy corruption fighter. Apart from her well-publicised tangles with the highest ranks of the State and ruling party, the documentary also reveals that her office resolved 130,000 complaints during her 7-year tenure - most from ordinary South Africans.

Not all of them have happy endings, but this is not Madonsela’s fault. In fact, it’s quite clear how often she empathises with them and is truly frustrated that the rest of the State can’t or won’t deliver on the expectations of the people who elected it.

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“Thuli Madonsela's investigations during her time as Public Protector took real courage and independence of mind,” says Prof Theunis Roux, Founding Director of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law (SAIFAC). “These are qualities that all South African public servants should cultivate, with due regard to the management structure of the organisation in which they work. While not everyone can be as dramatically independent as Thuli Madonsela, all public servants can demonstrate courage in smaller ways - in standing up for their assessment of challenges that arise at work and in following their moral conscience even when no one else seems to be doing so.”

Raising the bar internationally

The documentary, named both after a book about Madonsela as well as a reference to her quiet, almost demure character, is a fly-on-the-wall look at her last year as Public Protector. This is a crucial office, established to ensure that citizen complaints against corruption and other malfeasance by public officials are investigated. It’s a fairly common function among constitutional democracies, more often called an Ombud or Ombudsman, Roux explains. But Madonsela’s performance showed she’s a cut above the rest, matched by accolades such as being one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world and Forbes’ African Person of the Year.

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“South Africa's Public Protector has a very high international profile, largely because of the actions of Thuli Madonsela’s tenure. South Africans should be both proud of this achievement and protective of the legacy that she left behind,” Roux adds.

But there is more to her than her job and the documentary also includes Madonsela’s son and daughter, who she raised as a single parent. Her daughter, Wenzile, is also invested in creating a better country for South Africans, though her approach is more intense and makes for an interesting contrast with her mother, not to mention gives the audience a glimpse at the problems many people still experience every day.

A personal look at a public hero

It’s a captivating and very personal look at Madonsela’s world during an incredibly tough fight that culminated in officially exposing State Capture. But she didn’t stand alone - the documentary also looks at the civil activists, judiciary and ordinary South Africans who backed her quest for a country where leaders deliver instead of pilfering.

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“There were some coincidences that occurred under Thuli Madonsela’s watch and that allowed her and her office to really flourish,” says Andrews. “First, a government whose corruption and venality eventually were exposed. Second, brave individuals who came forward to provide her office with vital information. Third, a receptive judiciary who, like Madonsela, are fiercely independent and acted with great integrity. Fourth, her work was supported by a mostly independent media and civil society organizations who wanted to end the corruption. Finally, the public admired her tremendously, with good reason – and therefore she could become the voice of the people.” 

A voice of the people indeed. The Public Protector is not a ceremonial office. It’s a vital function that can both keep Government honest and act as a release valve for the frustrations of the people. It’s a role as ancient as the early years of the Roman Republic and a critical pillar for democracies that are inclusive, flourishing and for the people.

But it’s just a role. What gives the Public Protector substance is who stands in those shoes. Thuli Madonsela showed South Africa and the world how big and important those shoes can be.

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