It's been a year of depressing news on all sorts of fronts – in fact make that twelve months since the year is still pretty young. Nevertheless, this month has witnessed what I believe to be a major turnaround in South Africa’s fortunes. I’m not talking about the economy or a change in direction of the government or any other sudden positive development. I’m talking about one woman who stood up and said no, and kept saying no despite being denigrated and threatened. And who kept on doing it until she won.
Thuli Madonsela started life as the daughter of immigrants from Swaziland to apartheid South Africa. They were ‘informal traders’ – people who sell things at street markets and make a small profit by buying in bulk from suppliers and splitting up the goods into packages that people can afford. She went to school in Soweto in the years of violence and friction with the South African police, and then studied at the University of Swaziland. She obtained a law degree from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1990. After obtaining her degree, she worked with the trade union movement and the United Democratic Front – essentially the internal wing of the ANC in the last years of apartheid - and she is a long term member of the ANC. In 1996, she was part of the team that drafted the South African Constitution.
In 2014 she made Time magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people in the Leadership category, and last year she was awarded two honorary doctorates by two of the country’s leading universities. She carries a heavy workload and is a single mother of two; her husband died very young.
Before the first democratic elections, she was offered nomination for an ANC seat as a member of parliament. She declined because she felt that she could contribute more actively. She has certainly done so.
In October 2009, President Jacob Zuma appointed her as Public Protector, a position established by the Constitution to strengthen constitutional democracy and good governance. It’s independent from the state and has the power to investigate and make recommendations on improper dealings within government, which hamper service-delivery, abuse taxpayers’ money and perpetuate poverty and inequality. No doubt Zuma expected her to be grateful, and restrict her activities to the day to day matters that came to her office. Big mistake.
As he signed off on her appointment, Zuma’s mind was elsewhere. He was in the process of a major upgrade to his country home known as Nkandla. I mean a major upgrade – around $25 million at the time. And he didn’t have – or certainly didn’t mean to spend – the money. That was no problem. He was going to make the state pay for it i.e. the taxpayers.
Pretty soon Madonsela was involved in some pretty high profile matters. She pointed out the corruption of the ANC Youth League leader – Julius Malema – and the fallout from that eventually drove him from the ANC to form his own radical party. People in high places started to feel uncomfortable with their supposedly tame ANC-appointed Public Protector.
Inevitably, journalists discovered what was going on at Nkandla. Zuma shrugged it off, but questions started to be asked in parliament. Eventually the president explained that what had taken place was a “security upgrade.” Because of his role as president, he needed additional security and areas for safe assembly and public gatherings. These included an arena as an “evacuation area” and a “fire pool” to store water in case of fire in the thatch-roofed complex. Hmm.
|The 'safety arena'. Looks a lot like a retaining wall. Coincidence, surely!|
The case was referred to Madonsela who took her time to do a fair and thorough investigation. Her findings in 2014 were that Zuma and his family had enriched themselves at the taxpayers’ expense and that he should pay back much of the money. She was immediately vilified as having exceeded her authority, produced inaccurate conclusions, and she was even accused of being an agent for the CIA! (The last was withdrawn after she threatened to sue.) She was also told she had acted outside the constitution. Strange – after all she helped write it.
The president ignored her recommendations and provided his own report which cleared him of all wrong-doing. He has survived many scandals; this one too would pass.
But it didn’t. In a government and civil service fraught with corruption and inefficiency, few things stick in the public’s attention, but this was one of them. The opposition parties wouldn’t let it go away. And eventually, when they were blocked by the ANC majority in parliament, they – and Madonsela - took the matter to the Constitutional Court (South Africa’s equivalent to the Supreme Court).
|The Constitutional Court - without Fire Pool|
The Court heard the case last week. Judgment is reserved, but it’s all over. Zuma’s council admitted that he was wrong, that the Public Protector did have the authority she had claimed under the constitution, that the Zuma report had no status.
Will this mark the end of corruption in South Africa? Certainly not. It does mark the end of a culture that the highest in the land are above the law. And it has shaken the government, still reeling from Zuma’s arbitrary firing of the finance minister at the start of the year. It’s not the end of corruption, but it just may be the end of President Jacob Zuma.
Michael - Thursday