To her admirers, she was a “biblical David” battling “the most powerful and very well-resourced Goliath.” To her detractors, she was a lawyer playing God. What’s indisputable is that, in seven years as South Africa’s public protector, Thuli Madonsela exposed many of the broken promises of the country’s post-apartheid era. After taking down a slew of corrupt public officials between 2009 and 2014, she trained her sights on the biggest symbol of the country’s epidemic of cronyism: President Jacob Zuma. Now, South Africans are hoping that her yearslong anti-corruption campaign is finally about to bear fruit.
Raised in the hardscrabble Johannesburg township of Soweto, Madonsela was discouraged by her father from pursuing higher education because she would “get educated to speak Afrikaans and English in order to take instructions” from white people, she recalled in an interview. But, inspired by the early stirrings of the anti-apartheid struggle, Madonsela studied law and embarked on a career working for the trade unions. Later, in 1994 and 1995, she helped draft parts of the country’s post-apartheid constitution, which enshrined the office of the public protector — a role that falls between watchdog and public prosecutor — which she would one day inhabit.
In 2009, she became the first woman to serve in the post, and she wasted little time in taking on the country’s corrupt political elite, including the man who appointed her, Jacob Zuma. In a bombshell 2014 report, she exposed the president’s misuse of millions of dollars of public funds to renovate his private residence, including adding an amphitheater and helipad. The revelations eventually led to a court judgment against the president that forced him to pay back some of the money.
But Madonsela’s investigation into Zuma continued. By 2016, her office had compiled 355 pages’ worth of evidence that Zuma’s government had been “captured” by business interests. Among those named in the report were the Guptas, a wealthy family that allegedly tried to influence the appointment of ministers in return for favorable treatment. Mandonsela said she lacked the funds to complete her own investigation, however, and called for a broader judicial inquiry — a step that Zuma has successfully fought in court to date.
Madonsela’s term as public protector ended in October 2016, but she continued her anti-corruption crusade this year, pummeling the president in interviews and urging that he and his illicit associates be held accountable. Pressure is now building for a full investigation of her “state capture” report. Opposition parties have demanded that the probe proceed, and a cascade of embarrassing leaks — implicating the wealthy Gupta family and the global accounting giant KPMG, among others — has appeared to confirm many of the most damning allegations of influence peddling.
Even if Zuma staves off the investigation long enough to transfer power to his ex-wife at the ruling African National Congress’s party conference in December — a move that could shield him from any meaningful inquiry in the near future — Madonsela will have fundamentally altered the way many South Africans view their government. “When Thuli Madonsela came [into office], people started to realize what institutions can achieve if they are well-run,” says Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst based in Johannesburg.
Even one of her enemies has begun to appreciate the value of an independent anti-corruption czar. Julius Malema, the populist leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, was once the target of one of Madonsela’s corruption probes. But in recent months, his party has defended the former public protector’s work as Zuma has sought to brush her findings aside.
“She has converted Malema to see the importance of the public prosecutor’s office,” says Mathekga, adding that Madonsela “showed that at the end of the day, the truth does win. It might take time, but it does come out.”
Ty McCormick is Africa editor at Foreign Policy.
Madonsela was raised in the Johannesburg township of Soweto in a home with no electricity or water. She and her siblings slept on the kitchen floor.