Who will fill Thuli Madonsela’s shoes?

Thuli Madonsela is fearless in her role as the protector of the public’s interests. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Thuli Madonsela is fearless in her role as the protector of the public’s interests. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

With less than a year left before Thuli Madonsela vacates her office as the public protector, a search for her successor is getting under way.

Ironically, it is investigations such as that into President Jacob Zuma’s home at Nkandla, with the ensuing backlash, that propelled her office into the spotlight, forcing Madonsela to more than double her capacity.

Her term has largely made headlines for high-profile corruption cases: Nkandla, the police leasing procurement saga involving former top cop Bheki Cele and former public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, and the Guptas’ private jet landing at Waterkloof air force base.

The public protector’s annual report reveals that municipalities and the South African Police Services make up 40% of the top offenders in the complaints that are brought to her office.

But she says the cases she prides herself most on are the ones that involve “Gogo Dlamini”, citizens who feel wronged by the state but who have no resources to take it on alone.

One of these is the Gauteng pensioner who felt he had been short-changed nearly 10 years before by the Ditsong Museum in Pretoria, which he claimed failed to pay out his pension. The museum insisted another government department was responsible, leaving the pensioner shuttling back and forth. After the public protector got involved, the pensioner got his payout.

Another is the case of the university student who was awarded a bursary by the Big Five False Bay municipality in KwaZulu-Natal to study engineering, but who was left high and dry the following year when the municipality refused to pay her fees.
Again, the public protector stepped in and ensured the student could continue her studies.

The public protector’s jurisdiction is limited to state-owned entities where the state is the majority or controlling shareholder. This includes any level of government, public servants, government-owned corporations and parastatals.

In the nearly seven years that Madonsela has been in office, her caseload has grown exponentially.

According to the latest public protector annual report, 24 642 cases out of 39 817 were successfully finalised at a total cost of about R200-million. But because of the growing public interest, the number of complaints has increased tremendously, leaving the public protector’s office financially strapped.

Last year Madonsela asked Parliament for an additional R200-million to deal with the shortfall in staff and other resources needed for investigations. The closure of regional offices in Newcastle, Siyabuswa, Vryheid, Vryburg and Port Elizabeth was a consequence of the shortfall, plus the underuse of some offices because they were not conveniently located.

Themba Mthethwa, the public protector’s chief executive officer, said: “The backlog of cases is concerning because it indicates to us that more and more people are coming to the public protector for help, but we are not able to ensure that they receive prompt justice. There are various reasons for this. Key among those are resource constraints.”

Madonsela’s term has elevated the relevance and popularity of the public protector, unlike those of her maligned predecessors. She succeeded Lawrence Mushwana (in office from 2002 to 2009), whose tenure was marred by allegations of bias in favour of senior government officials and the hefty R7-million payout he received at the end of his term.

In 2009, the year in which Madonsela took office, the call for nominations was extended several times because there were not enough suitable candidates. But, with the growth in public knowledge, interest for the public protector’s cases and the growing intolerance for corruption, the race is on to be the next public protector. The choice will determine whether Madonsela’s legacy will be preserved.

Her term ends in October and, as the process for selecting a new public protector is set to begin, issues of transparency and public participation are the top priority. Madonsela’s stern and unapologetic stance against those in power has put her beyond reproach for many. Whoever she hands the baton to will be tasked with upholding the standards she has set.

“Thuli [Madonsela] has been exemplary to say the least,” said executive director at human rights nongovernmental organisation Section 27 Mark Heywood. “She has set the bar high, but that is exactly where it should be.”

After the backlash from some of her high-profile cases, Madonsela has garnered support from many individuals, as well as organisations such as Corruption Watch.

In preparation for the search for Madonsela’s replacement, the nonprofit anti-corruption organisation has launched a public awareness and mobilisation campaign, called Bua Mzansi, which aims to ensure the selection process for a new public protector is transparent and includes the public. Corruption Watch executive director David Lewis said it is important that the integrity and independence of the public protector’s office be prioritised over any political ambitions.

“This [Madonsela] is clearly a person who has, at the least, irritated the executive immensely. I have no doubt that it will be thinking long and hard about who they should appoint for this position and I think the public should be thinking equally long and hard,” Lewis said.

In an interview with eNCA, Madonsela was typically humble in her refusal to take credit for the public protector’s popularity.

“I didn’t raise the profile of the office of the public protector. As a team we raised it. My predecessors raised it to the levels that they were able to. In many cases the actions of our detractors have raised the office more than we did,” she said.

When asked about the influence of the Nkandla case on her office, she said it showcased its power and will encourage government officials to abide by the remedial recommendations in their reports.

Though it is not yet clear what Madonsela will be up to after handing over the reins in October, her tenure has not only shaped politics and held public officials accountable, it has also left many “Gogo Dlaminis” better off.

Lewis added that maintaining the standard set during Madonsela’s tenure is an important aspect of keeping public servants accountable and plays a valuable role in upholding the democracy of South Africa.

“Madonsela’s successor must have a proven track record of independence – they must prove that they can stand against power and that they are beyond reproach,” said Heywood – something Madonsela brought into the position in a way none of her predecessors have.

Pontsho Pilane

Pontsho Pilane

Pontsho Pilane is a health journalist at Bhekisisa, the Mail & Guardian's health journalism centre. She debuted as a journalist at The Daily Vox, where she wrote primarily about gender, race and how they intersect. She was previously a general news reporter at the M&G. Pilane holds two degrees in media studies from Wits University. Read more from Pontsho Pilane

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