At a time when people’s trust in the body politic is eroding fast, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has emerged as a national heroine, almost universally revered for her refusal to bow to political pressure and a dedication to her office that few can emulate. Even in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre, she kept a level head as she spoke to Amandla! via email.
A!: You have been touring the country extensively to consult at National Stakeholder Consultative Forums. Is there really a breakdown in local government?
PP: I would not go as far as saying there is a breakdown in local government. There are very serious problems, and if they are not addressed, the financial and governance consequences will be extremely adverse and will be felt for many years.
A!: Our increasing wealth and inequality gap is seen as an underlying cause of violence, such as the Marikana tragedy, a result of a failure of the state or of its close relationship with capital.
PP: I do not believe corporations have more power than before. My experience as Public Protector has led me to believe the problem lies in regulatory failure. Oversight is weak and sometimes it is due to corruption and the failure to separate party and state.
A! You’ve been carrying thousands of investigations, from inflated tenders to blatant lack of delivery. Do you think the corruption and inequality problems have become endemic, or perhaps systemic, in such a way that we need a complete overhaul to uproot it?
PP: Corruption has reached unprecedented levels. However, what we need most now is to enforce laws and to implement the reports of the Auditor-General. Inequality is a major problem and so is poverty. One of the concerns we have is failure to give priority to constitutional guarantees.
A!: Given the levels of poverty and violence we are seeing coming to the surface, over and above the levels of corruption, does your office have enough resources to cope with the situation?
PP: We carried a workload of over 27 000 cases in the year ending March 2012. We are likely to exceed 30 000 this year. We do not have enough resources. The staff capacity is a little over 300 (people) of whom half are investigators.
A!: Everyone we know is in awe of what you are doing. But perhaps the support comes generally from detractors of the ANC or could be used to further the intra-party strife. How important is it to you to set an example to the public and maintain your squeaky-clean image?
PP: I knew that the trust that has been placed on me by the people imposes an enormous responsibility on me and my office to maintain integrity. We do our best to obey the law and the Constitution and to maintain fairness regardless of parties involved.
A!: You have said some very courageous things in public – such as that we cannot carry on like this, and ‘it did not use to be this bad’. Are you being admonished? You have been accused by at least one prominent alliance member and cabinet minister, Blade Nzimande of ‘selectively targeting government ministers and officials’.
PP: The majority of the people of South Africa support me as they care about the country more than protecting friends. ANC members support me too. I meet them daily and they commend us.
A!: You were involved in the making of our Constitution and worked with the unions. Given your background, how should we interpret the constitutional directive of the ‘progressive roll-out of socio-economic rights’ 18 years down the line? Or should we review that, for instance in the light of Marikana?
PP: I am happy with a progressive roll out of socio-economic rights. But we must use the Constitution to insist that socio-economic rights in the Bill of Rights are put first before nice ‘to-do’s’.
A!: You have called for a ‘constructive dialogue’ to upend corrupt practices. Is there not a need for a new Codesa? Or a systemic investigation into how we got there, including the exploitative practices of mining which go to the heart of the disaster of this country.
PP: Perhaps we do need a Summit, to review how far we’ve come in realising the constitutional promise of a better life for all and the Millennium Development Goals. We can use the space to identify frustrations and challenges that have derailed progress and decide on remedial action.
A!: You are on record as saying the need for a free and independent press is non-negotiable. Do you feel that SA has the kind of independent press that probes all forms of inequality, power abuses and power imbalances, from the public to the private sector?
PP: Freedom of the media is non-negotiable. Where there is evidence of interference, especially in public media, we need whistle blowers to speak out.
A!: How would you like to be remembered? What would you like to leave behind when you leave office?
‘She did her best in playing her part to ensure that the South African state is accountable, operates with integrity and is responsive to all the people.’
I wish to leave an office that resolutely and fearlessly ensures justice, fairness and integrity in the exercise of public power. I also encourage state actors to always put the Constitution first when they act. In so doing, they will always put the people first and surrender to public accountability as a way of life.