Corruption in South Africa and the Office of the Public Protector with Thuli Madonsela

Corruption in South Africa and the Office of the Public Protector with Thuli Madonsela

The Oliver Tambo Lecture at Georgetown University, instituted in the memory of anti-apartheid revolutionary Oliver Tambo following his 1987 visit to campus, constitutes an important forum for the exploration of current issues on the African continent. Following this year’s lecture, Five Minutes with an Expert sat down with Thuli Madonsela to discuss corruption within the South African government and the importance of the office of the Public Protector.


A book was recently published called The President’s Keeper by Jacques Pauw, which gained international recognition because of its allegations about corruption and state influence in President Zuma’s government. Have you read the book, and what are your thoughts on its contents?

I’m aware of the book and was sent the PDF copy [after the State Security Agency took action to prevent its publication], but I refuse to read it until I purchase myself a copy when I return to South Africa. I am aware of the issues this book deals with, because I conducted the investigation that brought a lot of the evidence for those charges to light. Given the evidence I collected, it’s clear that there is, indeed, a “shadow government” in South Africa that determines who loses their job and who gets appointed to certain strategic positions, as well as who receives contracts, funding, and licenses from the state.

You helped write and develop the South African constitution in 1996. Do you see the need for some sort of amendment or change to that constitution to restrict government control in the face of the allegations and the existence of a shadow government?

That is a very difficult question, and one which gets at the heart of the problem: how do you prevent interest groups from capturing and repurposing the state and political parties? Based on the evidence we now have, it’s not just the state that has been captured by these interests. The Zuma and Gupta families have captured the African National Congress (ANC), which currently governs South Africa, its presidency, its youth league, women’s league, military veterans, and a couple of its premieres. These branches of the party have been repurposed to protect the business and political interests of a few small families, instead of defending the constitution and the interests of the people of South Africa.

I think we could prevent this by creating a constitutional mechanism that forces the president to be answerable. For example, last year I issued a report with clear evidence that there was corruption, and one year later the president still has not answered. Instead, he took my report to the courts to challenge my power. I believe allegations like this have to be dealt with more immediately, because corruption is a crime, and the story becomes cold and may disappear over time if not addressed. The president has even boasted to the nation that those who are truly corrupt are his accusers, though he has no evidence for such claims. On the other hand, I have evidence from real sources, including the Financial Information Center and bank statements, proving there is real corruption in his administration. As long as the president remains unaccountable and unanswerable to the people, he can face the nation and lie with a straight face, and people may eventually come to believe him.

Your previous position as the Public Protector is unique to South Africa. Do you believe that this sort of position could, or should, exist as part of the government structure of other countries?

I think it is a necessary position everywhere in the world. In most cases, the South African government has actually responded to the demands of the Public Protector and even in the current case of the president an investigation brought evidence to light. The most important characteristic of the Public Protector is their independence from the institutions of government. The position is not subject to the executive or the legislature, and since it is not appointed, the Protector cannot be removed at will. In fact, he or she may only be removed through an impeachment process similar to that of a president or judge, based on evidence of incompetence, inability to perform duties, or misconduct. This strict process allows the Protector to be fully independent, without worrying about dismissal. The position is also remunerated at the same level as a constitutional court judge, limiting the desire to make decisions based on money. Finally, it is not renewable, eliminating the need to seek favors in hopes of reelection. All of these requirements make the Public Protector an important independent office for the government of South Africa.


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


Advocate Thuli Madonsela is the Chief Patron of the Thuli Madonsela Foundation and a 2017 Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow. She served as the Public Protector of the Republic of South Africa from 2009 to 2016; during her tenure, she investigated several high profile cases, including the probe into the misuse of state resources by South Africa's most senior politicians, as well as what became known as "State Capture" by private actors. She has received widespread praise for her investigative efficiency and professionalism, including from Time, Glamour, Transparency International, and the BBC. Adv. Madonsela is a human rights lawyer and an advocate for gender equality and the advancement of women, and in 2012 she was honored with South Africa’s Most Influential Women Award. A constitutional analyst and policy specialist, Adv. Madonsela has authored numerous publications. She holds a BA in law from the University of Swaziland and an LLB degree from the University of Witwatersrand. Upon her return to South Africa, she will take up a chair in social justice at the Law Faculty of Stellenbosch University.