In this interview, Thulisile Madonsela talks about how she transformed the office of public protector into a powerful anti-corruption agency. After a career working in the trade union movement and the Department of Justice, Madonsela became South Africa’s public protector in 2009. The office, established by the constitution in 1995, had a mandate to investigate government misconduct but had primarily worked on administrative justice cases. Faced with an influx of corruption complaints when she took office, Madonsela began to reorganize the agency to better handle that caseload. She identified three main problems she needed to solve: assigning more investigators to corruption cases, creating a triage function to sort through a growing number of complaints, and increasing impact at the level of local government. To achieve these goals, she had to change the culture and performance expectations within the office and secure more financial resources during a difficult period for South Africa’s economy. Madonsela reorganized the office to create an anti-corruption unit, developed triaging criteria, decentralized some functions to provincial offices, created standard operating procedures for investigators, revamped the staff training program, and recruited auditors and forensic investigators. As the reports she released gained attention and brought to light instances of high-level corruption, resistance to her work grew. Madonsela had to fend off accusations and threats and found it increasingly difficult to get resources from parliament. She took care to avoid attacking individuals in the media, to present the investigations as statements of fact, and to link acts of financial misconduct to the suffering of poor South Africans. A 2015 Supreme Court of Appeal ruling further empowered the public protector by declaring that agencies could not ignore the office’s recommendations for remedial action.
Thulisile Madonsela received her law degree from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1990 and began her career in the trade union movement. She then moved to the Department of Justice, where she participated in the strategic planning process to transform the justice system in post-apartheid South Africa. Madonsela also was involved in the constitutional dialogue during the 1990s. In 2006, after several years in the private sector, she rejoined the Department of Justice as a law commissioner. In 2009, after a multi-party parliamentary committee backed her nomination, President Jacob Zuma appointed Madonsela public protector. She served a seven-year term in the office. In 2016, she began a fellowship at Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative.