Thuli Madonsela: the quiet woman South Africa is listening to

South Africa's Public Protector is winning fans with her anti-corruption crusade.

The flag of the New South Africa
The flag of the New South Africa. Photograph: Getty Images

Groupie love is not something a government ombudsman often experiences. Nor do they usually boast Facebook fan groups or have members of the public calling for their immediate elevation to the office of head of state. But Thuli Madonsela has all this and more. As South Africa’s public protector, she has attracted adulation for her no-nonsense crusade against corruption in a country infamous for the depth and breadth of its cronyism – wherever she finds it.

So low are expectations of public figures in South Africa that when Madonsela was appointed in 2009, it was assumed that she would avoid high-profile investigations into members of her own party, the ruling African National Congress. She has done no such thing. Madonsela, who is renowned for her extremely soft-spoken delivery (journalists are constantly asking her to speak up at press conferences), appears to be fulfilling her role with the utmost impartiality.

Her latest scalp is General Bheki Cele, formerly the national police commissioner, whom President Jacob Zuma was forced to dismiss after an investigation by Madonsela unearthed a series of corrupt property deals. Last year, two of Zuma’s ministers were removed from their posts after similar allegations of corruption by the public protector.

Tempers and voices are raised high in South African politics at the best of times, and with factions within the ANC currently on manoeuvres ahead of their party presidential election later this year – Zuma himself is engaged in an intense campaign for re-election – very little provocation is required for something to flame out of control. Yet there’s no lecturing or hectoring from Madonsela. Her calm, reasoned statement at the height of the Cele scandal that “I’m not prescribing to President Zuma what he should do, but I expect him to do the right thing” proved to be a more powerful ultimatum than any shouting.

Not for turning

Opposition activists are delighted Madonsela is being so impartial. “She’s brave to take such a strong stand against being manipulated by her own party,” one tells me. “There are a lot of people in the ANC who have become trapped by their own loyalty. She’s showing them it’s possible to take a stand for what’s right.”

For decades the ANC has seemed an impenetrable edifice. Factions come and go but the party always has office-holders at every level of government. No matter the internal conflicts, externally party loyalty reigns supreme – arguably to the detriment of everything else. But there are signs that the edifice is beginning to crumble. For many people now, a commitment to the new South Africa is greater than to any party idea – Madonsela, for instance, forfeited a Harvard scholarship to help draft the country’s post-apartheid constitution.

An end to corruption in South Africa is still a long way off. But the recent activities of its public protector has suddenly made it feel a lot closer. The country still tends towards hero-worship in its politics and would perhaps prefer a louder, more sensationalist champion to take to their hearts. When asked why she declines ever to raise her voice, Madonsela is completely candid in her reply: “Why? Because it forces people to listen to what I’m saying.”

She’s quite right – and now a whole nation is hanging on her every word.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman