When she was appointed to the position of Public Protector in October 2009, the country might not have been sure of what to expect from the first woman to hold this job. With a BA Law from the University of Swaziland and an LLB from Wits University, Thuli possessed the requisite qualifications to ensure the upholding and safeguarding of democratic legislation.
But what couldn’t be predicted was how she’d execute the tasks. When her tenure ended in October 2016, we looked back and noted her valiant attempts to protect the country and its citizens. We know the role had required her to speak truth to power, but a recurring joke has been that nobody expected she would whisper truth to power. She’s aware of all the parodies and wise-cracks about her voice and says she finds it mostly amusing and only occasionally annoying.
Being soft-spoken has become her trademark in a sense, but it’s also created pressure to always be cool and tempered. She recalls an altercation in parliament with a deputy minister who raised his voice when speaking to her. “He went on a tirade and I returned the favour. The flack I got for that was more than other people who are known to return such favours get. Being soft had somehow become embedded into the job as a job description.” Later that day Thuli says she went to make amends, but ensured a clear distinction was set in that conversation. “Basically people were attacking me and calling it robust engagement, I disagreed. For me robust is about content; there is no robustness in plain rudeness. So, I apologised; not for what I said but for how I said it. He also apologised as well.”
Given the nature of the Public Protector’s job, assumptions have been that candidates should be loud, unyielding and when necessary, perhaps even aggressive. Now, following the recent interview questions for her successor, its seems Thuli has set a new precedent. “It looks like they have decided that it’s a requirement to be soft-spoken. But I don’t think you necessarily have to be soft-spoken or loud, I think that you have to be effective in communication.”
While it may not have been her intention to modify the scope for the qualities of a successful Public Protector, Thuli has done just that. Her commitment to this position has not gone unnoticed; with accolades coming from both local and international quarters. A highlight has South Africans beaming with pride was her inclusion in the 2014 list of Time Magazine’s The 100 Most Influential People.
In her post Public Protector life, Madonsela’s strategy is to both share and leverage her indisputable influence. With upcoming work in academia and as an advocate, she’s reluctant to be dependent on a sole employer.. “I can’t totally depend on jobs where you have a contract and you always have to start again from square one.”
So, she’s decided to start a company with her family and it won’t be registered in her name alone. “Rather I’ll work with the children and have a foundation that will always be my fallback”
Entrepreneurship is a decision that she wishes more people would take. “I don’t believe that anyone who has a degree should ever introduce themselves as ‘unemployed’. Everybody who has a degree should know that they have the capacity to create jobs. Even if they only create one job, which is their own.” As she crafts her life post the Public Protectorship, Thuli plans to create work for herself and for others. She’s also likely to write an autobiography and dabble in her secret past-time of fashion design. It will be an atypical next few years, and that suits Thuli just fine.