In South Africa, the people’s protector is a woman wise to ways of power

President Jacob Zuma running for re-election amid accusations of using public money for private gain

Not long after she issued a report that led to the dismissal of South Africa’s police commissioner, Thuli Madonsela — that country’s public ombudsman — gave an interview on a late-night comedy news program.

“We just do our job, we find out who is supposed to have done something, and if they did something wrong then we tell them, but it’s really in a loving way to correct them,” Madonsela told her interviewer, a puppet operated by a comedian.

The puppet Chester Missing interviews South Africa public protector Thuli Madonsela on "The Late Night News'' in South Africa.

“In a loving way!” exclaimed the puppet in shock.

The exchange was typical for the soft-spoken Madonsela — known in South Africa as the public protector — who has stood up to the nation’s powerful on behalf of ordinary people. In doing so she has invoked for herself the image of the “auntie” who wags her finger at misbehaving family members.

Madonsela has pursued allegations of corruption and mismanagement in the South African government, often to the embarrassment of the nation’s powerful.

But her most recent report is probably her most tremendous: a finding that South African President Jacob Zuma improperly benefited from an estimated 246 million rand (US$23.3 million) in security upgrades to his private residence in Nkandla, deep in the heart of rural, Zulu South Africa.

The contrast between Madonsela and Zuma is pronounced. The president served as a veteran of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the African National Congress’ military wing in its struggle against apartheid. He is well known for his social conservatism, he is an honorary pastor in a South African church and he is polygamous — currently married to four women.

Madonsela, who at 51 is more than 20 years Zuma’s junior, has made her way in life as a professional woman, choosing to study the law over the disapproval of her pastor. She was an adviser to black trade unions during apartheid and served as a technical expert in the drafting of post-apartheid South Africa’s constitution, one of the most progressive in the world.

But onlookers who view this fight as depicting Madonsela as a progressive, modern woman confronting an old African traditionalist in Zuma are misunderstanding local dynamics, and underestimating the cultural astuteness of Madonsela.

Between people and power

In her public addresses Madonsela has often referred to a fictional “Gogo Dlamini” (gogo means granny), an ordinary South African citizen who needs help in the face of misadministration. Madonsela has likened her role to that of the Makhadzi, an “aunt” in South Africa’s Venda culture who serves as a buffer between the people and the powerful.

“I think what’s interesting is that she’s using that kind of imagery deliberatively, so that ordinary people can understand the significance of what she’s doing,” said Professor Sheila Meintjes of the University of Witwatersrand.

“[She’s] using this construction to further legitimate her position in cultural terms,” Meintjes said.

South African President Jacob Zuma says he has done nothing wrong in upgrades to his private residence.
Mike Hutchings/AP

South Africa’s constitution, which, among other things, guarantees the rights of gays and lesbians and promises equality between men and women, has come under attack from many African traditional leaders. Meintjes said that Madonsela’s use of traditional imagery has been a way of co-opting culture.

“There’s been a lot of criticism of the constitution coming from traditionalists,” Meintjes said. “That it’s a ‘western liberal constitution.’ What she’s doing is saying that you can use the constitution in a variety of ways.”

The public protector fulfills a unique role in South Africa. The office — and its independence — is enshrined in the country’s constitution and is mandated to investigate maladministration and corruption. The nation’s president appoints the public protector — Madonsela was appointed by Zuma — for a single six-year term.

Nomalanga Mkhize, a historian at Rhodes University, said that while Madonsela’s gender — and the criticism she’s received from the ruling party and its allies — is not an issue, Zuma’s power and esteem are based in his being a man.

“The kind of power that has been cultivated around Jacob Zuma is paternalistic,” Mkhize said. “It’s not Thuli Madonsela’s gender that is the issue here. It is Jacob Zuma’s … That is the gender story here.”

What kind of elder?

Madonsela’s report on Nkandla found that while Zuma improperly benefited from the security upgrades to his home, including a swimming pool, cattle pen and amphitheater, there was no evidence that he asked for them. Instead, the improvements — whose scale ballooned from initial plans — were allegedly encouraged by his personal architect and allowed by junior officials.

“Because he’s a father figure, they feel the need to take care of him ... Because he is a paternal figure, they don’t see the problem with lavishing him at the expense of the taxpayer,” Mkhize said.

“It’s not about fleecing the public pocket. It’s this aura of paternalism that invites people to fawn around him,” she added.

The private compound of South African President Jacob Zuma, located in Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal province.

In contrast, Mkhize said the late former President Nelson Mandela still invoked traditional culture but projected “a different kind of eldership,” one of financial restraint. She argued that Zuma “projects the opposite” and as a result inadvertently encourages financial waste.

In announcing her report, Madonsela frequently invoked Zuma’s responsibility to be mindful of public spending with an emphasis that public funds should be spent on helping ordinary South Africans, not on the protection and comfort of the elite.

“She’s trying to counter that sense that power should be used to safeguard the positions of powerful men and to take on that masculinized power,” Mkhize said.

“Her institution is overseeing that patriarchal wastage and saying: ‘Fathers don’t do this.’

“You can play it either way as far as culture is concerned. That’s why Thuli Madonsela invoked culture. She did that on purpose: ‘In case you think that there is some kind of cultural reasoning to justify what you are doing, let me remind you that our own cultures are clear for the need for someone to oversee and overlook.’”

In the meanwhile, Madonsela has come under criticism from some in the ANC, who have questioned the timing of the release of the report only months before the May general election. Some of the party’s allies have gone even further, with the ANC’s youth league reportedly accusing Madonsela of “having tea” with opposition political parties.

A student group also criticized her, reportedly referring to her “big ugly nose.” Sisonke Msimang, a gender activist and columnist at the Daily Maverick  said that while Madonsela's gender has been raised in the criticism of her, it has not been the cause.

“I think that gender plays into an already hostile environment for a corruption buster like Madonsela. The fact is that if she were a man and had stood her ground in her investigations as she has done to date, they would have found something to attack as well,” Msimang said.

“Gender provides them with another issue to exploit, but it hasn't been a primary issue.”

Little impact at polls

Though news of Nkandla has dominated South Africa —  it’s the only story to draw any attention away from the trial of Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, who is accused of killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp — Zuma’s ruling ANC is unlikely to pay much of a price at the polls for it.

Political analyst Susan Booysen of the University of Witwatersrand said many voters had already considered Nkandla and made up their minds.

“It’s not going to be a major [issue]. It could make the ANC lose a handful of percentage points, but it's not going to have a major impact,” she said.

Booysen said that most ANC voters, though outraged by Nkandla and the leadership of the party, would still likely cast their vote loyally for the organization credited with leading the country out of apartheid, showing “a loyalty to an ideal ANC.

“ANC citizens are extremely scathing of their leadership … But they do not disinherit or disavow the ANC because of that,” Booysen said. “That is one of the strange but true realities of South African politics.”

Related News

South Africa
Jacob Zuma

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


South Africa
Jacob Zuma

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter