History bears proof of the multiple wrongs done in this world, but that doesn’t mean reconciliation, peace, and hope are impossible. Joining us today with lessons and insights on healing the angry deep divides in our society is Professor Thuli Madonsela. She is a law professor occupying the Law Trust Research Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University. In this episode, she joins Anne Pratt to discuss the current state of social justice in Africa and what it takes to resolve conflicts, with lessons for the US January 6th Commission, the Schism (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents) in the United States, and in the world beyond. Advocate Professor Thuli Madonsela also weighs in on The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and how it’s been effective or less effective in its purpose. She imparts lessons from her life-threatening moments and brave acts of courage fighting against social injustice, fraud, and corruption. No President is Above the Law. Don’t miss the incredible insights from the fearless and formidable Advocate Professor Thuli Madonsela by listening to this thought-provoking episode on humanity, its failings, and hope for a better world and a brighter future.
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Heal the Angry Deep Divides with Professor Thuli Madonsela
Re-examine Truth, Reconciliation, Reparations, and Healing
A bold leader joins us from Stellenbosch in the Western Cape region of South Africa, known for its majestic natural beauty and famous wine roots. She is an advocate of the High Court of South Africa. She holds the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice. She is a Law professor at the University of Stellenbosch, conducting social justice research and teaching constitutional and administrative law.
She is the former fearless Public Protector of South Africa, investigating several high-ranking officials and state institutions, including former President Jacob Zuma, demonstrating that nobody is above the law. She is a multi-award-winning legal professional with more than 50 international and national awards. In 2014, Times Magazine named her one of the world’s top 100 most influential people. In 2016, Forbes Africa named her person of the year, and the BBC also included her in their top 100 women. She co-drafted the constitution of South Africa and several laws that anchored South Africa’s hard-won democracy. We warmly welcome Advocate Professor Thuli Madonsela. Welcome to the show.
Thuli, it’s always so wonderful to see you. Thank you so much for being part of this important conversation about leadership and leading boldly into the future. It’s always wonderful to hear your insights and perspectives.
Likewise, and greetings. It’s so lovely to see you again. It reminds me of our days at Harvard.
Many happy days. This conversation around leadership, you’ve had such a remarkable journey, not only as a member of the team that crafted the first and world-acclaimed constitution of South Africa, promulgated in 1996 but also as former Public Protector of South Africa. In your view and opinion, what do you think are the biggest leadership challenges facing not only South Africa but the world today?
I honestly think we are experiencing the consequences of an erosion of ethical leadership over time. The kind of principled leadership that drove the actions of leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Charlotte Maxeke, Helen Suzman, Albertina Sisulu, etc., has been eroded over time. As the principles were getting eroded, the institutions themselves started to plunder, and trust in government institutions and the corporate sector has also been eroded. Even civil society leadership is facing the same challenges to a certain extent, but within all of this are still great leaders. I don’t agree with those who suggest that the kind of leadership we saw in Nelson Mandela and Bishop (Desmond Tutu) will never be seen again.
I share your optimism. That’s part of why we soldier on to do this work and to reach those people. Like you, I have a lot of faith and hope. What struck me after two great moral giants fairly recently passed, there are many more, but with the passing of the wonderful Arch Desmond Tutu, it is time to pause. He played a significant role in the transformation of South Africa. What comes to mind for you about the great gift and legacy of ‘the Arch’, Desmond Tutu?
When I think of Tutu, I think of the kind of leadership that he was part of. It was a leadership that was principled and purpose-driven. It’s key when you look at the footprints that the Arch left. He was always driven by principle. He was also driven by the purpose of creating a more just world. Although he dealt with many issues, when you look at all of them together, you’ll see that the quest for justice is at the core of that. Within that justice, the essence is open to a world that values equally the humanity of everyone and a world that understands the interconnectedness of humanity, that we cannot harm others without harming ourselves, and also that it is wrong to presume that our humanity has more value than the humanity of others.
I’m also struck by the passing of former President de Klerk. After his passing, there were very mixed reactions and emotions, but I was curious about the piece you wrote around, if I recall correctly, that “this was a time to deal with our demons.” Could you share with our audience what you mean by that? Perhaps give some context around (former) President de Klerk and how he was the president that negotiated the transformation of South Africa. Maybe you could share a little more of that with us too.
Two things. Firstly, I think FW de Klerk was also one of those leaders who chose principle over fame. He was part of apartheid, but he had a growth mindset. When he reached a point where he realized that not only was apartheid unsustainable, it was wrong. He chose a different path, hence his release of Nelson Mandela and all of the other political leaders, unbanning the ANC and other political parties and starting the negotiation process that led to our new constitution. It was painful towards the end of his life because people judged him by his past, forgetting that there was also what he did after his Damascus experience.
I still believe that what he said at the end of his term might be less than what the victims of apartheid expected from him, but it is a gift that, if we use it appropriately, we can begin a conversation about the legacy of apartheid. Different people understand that legacy differently. For example, there are leaders like Madam Helen Zille, who is a very good person, but she thinks the way forward is to pretend we are now equal and just run as fast as you can. You and I know that if I hold you back, or somebody holds you back and allows me to run a couple of yards before you enter the race, you would have to be Superman to catch up with me.
If we have to have a fair race, we need to rethink whether we can give you a lift up or stop me, but something has to be done to level the playing field. De Klerk got me thinking that not only was apartheid terrible and caused pain and suffering, but there is also a legacy that it left us. Therefore, that’s where we can start having an honest conversation about healing the divisions of the past and establishing a new society based on democratic values, social justice, and fundamental human rights, as our (constitutional) preamble mostly says.
In reconciling the feelings about de Klerk, what do you think South Africa or the people who are left with that legacy in other countries need to do? What process do South Africans and people in similar circumstances need to follow to reach that point of honorable closure to have a new conversation?
What I think can help us to have honest conversations, and I know that Elita de Klerk, FW’s widow, is willing to commence those kinds of conversations over a cup of tea about what happened. Of course, they will be painful conversations because they will bring up the traumas that people suffer. Collectively, we need to consider what we can do as part of restitution. Trust me, without restitution, this country will never be reconciled.
We can choose different leaders. We can call out extremism, but the vast discrepancies or disparities in wealth, education, and ownership of residential spaces can largely be traced to our imperfect and unjust past. It doesn’t mean we should live in the past. That’s where I like the approach by Desmond Tutu, which is the same approach as the constitutional quote in S v Makwanyane (Editor’s note: S v Makwanyane and Another (CCT 3/94) was a landmark 1995 judgment of the Constitutional Court of South Africa) that you can entertain two seemingly opposite opinions simultaneously.
That is ambiguity. We can forgive and yet seek some form of restitution as part of justice. It’s not an option of whether you go for justice or you go for forgiveness. Ubuntu enables forgiveness that has restitution without vengeance and retribution. That’s what the constitutional court told us in the death penalty abolishing case called S v Makwanyane.We can forgive and yet seek some form of restitution as part of justice. It's not an option of whether you go for justice or forgiveness. Click To Tweet
It’s an interesting thought, too, because what comes to mind are a couple of things. Firstly, how do you define restitution? What would be your thoughts and takeaways around how we then create and implement a restitution process that is one without vengeance and one that is not perceived to be discounting the fact that we have forgiven the past? How do we define it? How do we go about it? How do we do it, so it’s not perceived as vengeance and taking revenge?
Restitution is part of restorative justice. If you understand restorative justice, especially as part of the ubuntu African Justice System, it is about taking responsibility for what happened and acknowledging the consequences of that. and collectively owning the process of repairing the damage. We know that in apartheid South Africa, many of the people alive today have nothing to do with creating colonialism in apartheid.
What needs to be acknowledged is to understand that apartheid, patriarchy, heteronormalcy, and all of these things held some of us on higher ground or advantage. Therefore, how do we collectively begin to think through how can redistribute some of what we have? This would be issues such as land. I don’t agree with rushing to change the constitution. I think we need a conversation.
FW de Klerk and I had some conversations about the need for talking. What happened was we had constitutional talks that were focused on the political settlement. We never had an economic settlement to say, “For those who were then left behind, if we are going to create a society of equals, how is this going to happen?” I don’t have a magic wand on how it will happen.
I meet with AgriSA now and then. I was amazed when I went to Upington a few years ago and see what farmers were doing without being forced by the law to do things. Some of them were chopping their land and redistributing it among farm workers. It’s not among politicians or big people but the farm workers who till the land. Some of them decided to go for giving tools to the farm workers and some bulk properties for farm workers.
I think there are enormous possibilities if we all accept that the past has restored us in the unequal world with lots of resentments that go with that. We need leadership from all corners of society and leadership without a title. This kind of leadership revolves around the ethics of justice, particularly social justice. We collectively aim to build a most peaceful and stable society. The impact of all of those old laws on everyday justice and our collective commitment to each other to serve each other so that we can create a country for all and a country that all will defend.
That’s such a profound point.
In Upington, it was the leadership of AgriSA. That is the leadership of the agriculture sector in South Africa. It’s mostly Afrikaner farmers, and it’s mostly simple people. The kind we used to fear. The ones wearing khakis and brown shoes. If you meet with them, which I had the privilege to meet and address at their invitation, they are human beings like all of us. They want a stable life for their families. They do appreciate that our past bestowed a gift to some and a burden to others. It is in our collective interests to make the best in terms of restitution and healing of the past’s divisions.
If you’re willing, can you share some of those conversations with former President FW de Klerk? Can you share some of those thoughts and sentiments with us?
What I found remarkable from FW de Klerk towards the end of his life was that he had an honest understanding that apartheid was wrong. People took away his reluctance to acknowledge that it was a crime against humanity. When I look back, I don’t condone what he did. Still, I understand that it’s difficult for people to acknowledge that if it was a crime against humanity, then as the dispenser of apartheid, I was a criminal, placing me in the same category as Hitler. There’s no doubt that apartheid was a crime against humanity. In the end, FW de Klerk does acknowledge that apartheid was a violation of humanity.
The second thing I was pleased about was when we started the process here at Stellenbosch University of advancing social justice. The University of Stellenbosch (Editor’s note: http://www.sun.ac.za/english) is the only university I know of and probably the only institution with a Restitution Statement. It starts with acknowledging apartheid as a violation of human rights. It also acknowledges its role as a university in advancing apartheid and the wrongs it inflicted on people.
It even acknowledges that those who broke rank were persecuted. I suspect that statement is talking to people such as Beyers Naudé, who was responsible for paying my fees when I was at the university. He was one of the early converts to social justice and understood that apartheid was wrong. It ends up committing the university to do whatever it can to remedy the past’s legacy.
The university, for example, is part of Visit Stellenbosch. One of its initiatives is a Social Justice Walk with our vice-chancellor. Many of the university leaders are at the forefront of leading that march, which takes us to painful places such as a school that was stolen from the colored community. The community was then kicked out and sent to an intuitive school. That asset was then given to the university, and then the university gave it to the community, but now the university is talking about what to do with it.
When these universities invited me to occupy this chair, having created it as part of the Social Justice Initiatives, FW de Klerk was one of the leaders that immediately embraced this initiative. He was there as part of the first Social Justice Summit (Editor’s note: https://socialjustice.sun.ac.za/conference-summit-2022/). He generally would then have private conversations around the unfinished work of the TRC. He thinks it’s the TRC that dropped the ball. I spoke to Yasmin Sooka, who was part of the TRC and thinks the government dropped the ball. Regardless, our focus as Social Justice Chair in our Social Justice Summit will be on the uncomfortable conversation around restitution.
That’s inspiring because TRC has been heralded worldwide as such a remarkable initiative. We know the Arch underwent an incredible process holding its’ work up and which is often characterized by deep pain. In many circles, the TRC is applauded. No process is perfect, and apart from this aspect, where do you think the TRC could have perhaps added extra layers of investigation, recommendations, and process to reach a point of greater healing, comfort, and acceptance?
I think that the TRC failed to deal with the economic impact and economic violations of apartheid, the social violations, cultural violations, and psychological violations, and the impact thereof. It only dealt with the physical torture and killing of people. If you look at the difference between the TRC and the Carnegie Commission Report on the Poor White Problem, which was released in 1932, it looked at how the English had been cruel and unjust to the Afrikaners.
It looked systematically at the condition of the Afrikaner community, the psychological, social, economic, educational, and health situations, and then it makes recommendations. I must say the Carnegie Commission or Carnegie Foundation at this stage owes us something because one of the things people don’t realize is that we blame everything on apartheid.
This was 1932. It had nothing to do with apartheid. It was still the English in charge. It was still colonialism. It was now South Africa but not yet the Republic of South Africa. Even though Black poverty was then seen as worse than White poverty, the commission recommended that only White poverty should be dealt with. The worst part was a statement that said that a measure of the success of the anti-White poverty quest would be when the poorest White person is richer than the richest Black person.
You see an erosion of Black rights, ownership of property, and farming rights. The commercialization of Black life and making people totally dependent on poor wages comes after the 1932 report. What we can do now is take what FW de Klerk sees, that there was devastation. He didn’t give us a way forward, but he gave us a gift to say things went wrong. We’ve grown up in all sorts of life areas. We didn’t cause this damage, but it is our problem now, and we are equal to it. I honestly think that most people in this country, Black and White, are willing to do something. When I engage with people, they always ask, “What can we do?”
That’s very significant, and it requires exercising leadership to help find the way of what it is we can do. If I’m understanding you correctly, you are saying that a good place to start is to have some of those difficult and painful conversations with different stakeholders at the table.
Certainly, and I like the fact that you are putting leadership at the center of it. At the Thuma Foundation, we say leadership is about influencing and inspiring yourself and others to think and act in a particular way. If you look at what happened during Mandela’s time, the drive for transformation was mostly through leadership which was about engaging to influence people to be inspired to think in a particular way and then move forward.
Over the years, the drive has shifted from leadership to leveraging the hard power of the law to move things forward. I don’t think it works magically because people have to buy into the change you want them to be part of. Not everyone will buy into the change, but you want most people to think on their own, “We must do this.”Over the years, the drive has shifted from leadership to leveraging the hard power of the law to move things forward. It doesn’t work magically because people have to buy into the change you want them to be part of. Click To Tweet
I have a little fable I created around a Monopoly game that I give to leaders. I also give it to my students, and then I tell them about the one team that is allowed to play. The two teams, the blue team and the pink team are allowed to play, and then suddenly, the pink is kicked out. If they are students, we do it literally, kicked out. The blue is then allowed to go through several rounds, and the pink (team) is allowed to join after the blue has been given several rounds without the pink.
During that process, they are also allowed to take over the properties of the pink and get interest-free loans, which is what happened in this country. After that, I tell them, without telling them that this has anything to do with this country, “how would they solve it?” You see a mind shift of people to say, “You can’t then say to the pink team and the blue team, ‘Now we are equal.'” Literally, my students nearly cried when we did it because the winning team was getting R100 for each member. To students, R100 is a lot of money. In the end, I gave everyone R100.
If we don’t assume that those who disagree with us are evil, we just assume that they are doing their best based on what they know, what they think, and how they feel right. We also assume that we can change what they know and we can change what they think. There’s also a potential to change how they feel about change.
We can then work differently with each other and eventually meet halfway. We all have to give up fixed ideas about what needs to be done and be prepared to live with what each one of us will bring to the table about what needs to be done to heal the divisions of the past and move not just South Africa forward but the entire world forward.
Well, you’ve given us that segway, you are an amazing woman of the world. You’ve been recognized around the world by multiple governments in France, Germany, the UK, and Australia. I remember at Harvard, you flew off to receive the Commonwealth Rule of Law Award. You have this incredible global depth of insight, knowledge, and experience. In your mind right now, what do you think are the three big leadership challenges for the world?
As I have indicated, it’s a question of ethics from a character point of view among the leaders. We need our leaders to be a little more ethical, purpose-driven, conscious of their impact, and committed to serving everyone, not just people like themselves. When our leaders think about justice, we say it shouldn’t be just us. It should be justice for all because as long as there’s injustice somewhere, there can’t be sustainable peace anywhere. That’s one big issue. I would say ethics, and within that ethics, there’s also a question of integrity. Which has led to systemic corruption in virtually all structures of society.
The second issue that I think is a big challenge in the world is the issue of social justice, and it’s not just a South African case. I remember addressing a conference in 2010 that was organized by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, looking at extremism. I remember saying to them that teaching young people to avoid extremism is a good thing, but it will not stop extremism.
A lot of the young people that get involved in extremism are young people who think that the world is rigged against others. Some of them are rich themselves, but they have this burden of privilege when they see that others are suffering while they’re doing alright. To limit the attraction of extremism, we will have to make sure that we do better on justice, particularly social justice. For example, in Southern Africa, we were spared from those extremist organizations, but you see that some of them have made inroads in Mozambique.To limit the attraction of extremism, we have to make sure that we do better on justice, particularly social justice. Click To Tweet
Why was it possible? Are those in the outskirts more forgotten or left behind and most accessible to the influences of extremists? I’m not suggesting that young people should gravitate toward extremism. I’m saying we can educate young people about a better way to change the world. Victims should not become villains. That’s what Hitler became, a villain. Still, from our side, we have to make this world a more just world.
In South Africa and Africa, young people are ready to work, but they don’t get the support they need in terms of the markets they need for some of the innovations we are coming up with. They are still their old model that says they must get jobs from these old multinational corporations. A lot of them don’t want jobs. They want you to meet them where they are. They think that they have invented things. Why can’t they be supported with finance, markets, and all that goes with inclusion?
The last issue, the first one, is integrity and ethics. The second one is social justice. The third one from the leadership issue is the issue of climate change. I do think that it’s linked to everything. In the past, we thought that as long as foreign direct investment was pumped into the poorer parts of the world, that was okay, or even in the developed world. We didn’t think about sustainable progress. Progress for who and how sustainable? As a result, we are all paying now for an environment that has been devastated.
While the gains of devastating the environment went to the rich, those who suffer most from climate change are the poorest. When there are floods, the rich can jump into their jets, and off they’re gone. The poor will find themselves in refugee camps or even dead. Therefore, from a point of view of leadership, the issue of virtues needs to be restored. Although I said ethics, what you say here is bold leadership, but we will need courageous leadership, leaders that will step forward. As you mentioned, a leader like Mandela broke rank and stepped forward boldly. Bishop Tutu, Helen Suzman, Charlotte Maxeke, and FW de Klerk. You will need leaders that will not wait until everyone buys into an idea about what’s good for our shared humanity. You will need leaders that are prepared to step forward.
In the end, we will need the leaders that you refer to as bold leaders, which we call courageous leaders, but it means the same thing. Because the truth is evolving, those who have seen the truth are prepared to step forward and encourage their peers to join them when they have seen the truth about our shared humanity.
Those are the kind of leaders we have been blessed with in South Africa from the time of Charlotte Maxeke, Nelson Mandela, Helen Suzman, Albertina Sisulu, and even FW de Klerk. These leaders would not shy away from stepping forward just because their peers are not ready to see what they see. Bishop Tutu, whom we recently lost, is one of those leaders. We will need more of those leaders that will do that on the issues of integrity, ethical leadership, social justice, and climate change.
If we go back briefly to your younger life, you spoke about de Klerk’s ‘Damascus Moment.’ All of us have a story to tell, and at some point, we have a crucible. If you take us back in time to your young life, what was a crucible for you? Can you paint a picture of a place at the time when you were dealing with a very dark and difficult moment? What was that? How did you feel then, and how did you navigate all of that?
Let me say what was my Damascus Moment. My Damascus Moment would be June 16th. I was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist. Even killing a cockroach was difficult. I’m still struggling with killing cockroaches, even though they annoy me immensely. After June 16th, as a Seventh-day Adventist child, I started getting involved in the struggle. The second moment for me that changed how I viewed things would be when I was arrested arbitrarily and nearly didn’t graduate.
That was the turning point that made me not only embrace this struggle but also embrace the armed struggle. Over the years, I have come to a point where it dawned on me that fighting fire with fire does not give us winners of the war. It gives us battle winners. Therefore, you always win this round, and then tomorrow, somebody else wins the round.
We need a permanent solution to our seemingly intractable problem in South Africa. The permanent solution would be one where nobody feels that they are losers and nobody feels that they are winners. That’s what brought me into the space where I was part of the negotiations for the constitution for the Local Government Transition Act and part of the crafting of the laws that have sought to give us some kind of blueprint that we can use to build this new society where no one feels they do not belong. No one feels that their humanity is more important than that of others.
That’s such a profound experience. How was it for you at the time? How did you feel at the time?
I was sad when I was arrested because I worried about my university. I cried some of the time. I sang a lot of the time. I was defiant a lot of the time, singing struggle songs and sadness and anger. For me, that’s what made me embrace the armed struggle. Thank God, I live to be able to evolve to understand that those who did those terrible things to us were humans like us. They would have done better if they knew better, thought better, and felt better. We can do something to bring up people in our society, in our homes, and in our institutions and understand that to safeguard their interests, they cannot do that on the back of the pain of others.
It’s such an important concept that we need to share, express, and empower others with that notion and understanding. I don’t know about you, but I find that sometimes trying to grasp the logic of that requires a different way of thinking and some very practical experiential examples of what that feels like and looks like.
It’s hard for people to move beyond taking care of my tribe and my family and creating that connection with, “If I may care, how come it is that my destiny and my well-being are hooked into somebody else’s? If I’m okay and my family is okay, my tribe is okay.” That way of thinking is not always easy to expand and share with people. I wondered whether, within the Thuma Foundation or elsewhere, beyond the Monopoly game at Stellenbosch, there have been ways in which you have found you’ve been successful in translating that knowledge or insight. Is it faith or belief?
At Stellenbosch University and Thuma Foundation, we make inroads around the notion of shared humanity. As long as there’s injustice somewhere, there can’t be sustainable peace anywhere. Real joy cannot be built on the trauma and pain of another because if you do that, your joy is not sustainable. It’s because you live in fear of the person you’ve traumatized, and they also live in perpetual anger and resentment of what you have done to them. Whatever you achieve, even through hard work, is still in pain. Therefore, that’s not sustainable.
I have been privileged to be invited to virtually every corner of corporate South Africa, particularly through the Thuma Foundation. All the key companies have invited us to invest, including Standard Bank, Old Mutual, Absa, Deloitte, and several of them. I spoke to more than 200 companies and community organizations. You are right in saying everyone looks out for themselves and their families.
They have neat little pictures of their family on their desk and consider themselves good people. When you show them gently that the neat life they have is built on the pain of others, not because they constructed that pain but because they didn’t deconstruct the inherited disparities, I see a shift.
During our last Social Justice work with Visit Stellenbosch, we walked and talked again about what happened. Our first one was on June 16, and it was amazing. They shift the body language and the understanding. Friendships were created across color, race, age, and socioeconomic status. In this last one, I kept walking with different people and walking with one White female doctor or specialist. I think she’s a surgeon in something.
It started with her asking me, “Why aren’t people educating themselves and moving forward?” The standard approach was that everyone would work harder and ensure their families were safe. I explained how the Black family was killed by colonialism and finished off by apartheid. Even that, you can’t blame families because it was destroyed. It needs to be assisted in creating a family structure that supports everyone.
I also spoke about how inequality operates like debt. It keeps increasing because of the rule of exponentiality when you don’t arrest it. Being a scientist, you could understand that. In the Monopoly story, I explained that when you don’t reset the game and see those who lost, and whatever the blues acquired, good for them. You then say, “These ones should be educated.” They never going to be equal.
I remember the doctor at the end of it said, “What can I do?” One of the things I spoke to her about was a program I started at the University of Stellenbosch called Action for Inclusion, where students who have debt and are at risk of being kicked out of the university or not getting their degrees or results were now assisted under this program. I indicated that when we started it, I asked that R27,000 be deducted from my salary as part of that. In addition to other initiatives like the Thuli Rose and money that has been donated via Thuma. Without thinking, she immediately donated R27,000 to Action for Inclusion.
That’s one example of you starting people to think differently about everyone should work harder, and then you explain that they would have to be superhumans to close the gap on their own. People understand. I also see progress and understanding that Stellenbosch University and the Thuma Foundation are not the only ones that are evangelizing around social justice and the race gap, gender gap, heterosexual distance, LGBTQI gap, and all of these.
Many other organizations are also evangelizing. I honestly think that as we move towards the UN sustainable development goals timeline, we’ll be getting converted into this space, and a lot more is going to happen to breach the gap. The university has also started another program called Bridging the Gap. We are looking at everyone, including foreign students, who are left on the ledge and making sure they don’t get kicked out because they owe fees.As we move towards the timeline of the UN sustainable development goals, we’ll be getting converted into this space, and a lot more will happen to breach the gap. Click To Tweet
I would love to get a list of those different organizations because those are wonderful examples of hope and change in actions. I would love to hear more about those organizations when you have a moment. Returning to moral courage, we know we started this conversation around the erosion of ethical values, leadership, and principles.
You’ve had a tough time. There have been many examples in South Africa. You were a former Public Protector and conducted very high-profile difficult investigations. One is into the former president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, who published your well-respected report, Secure in Comfort, in 2014, which is remarkable because you were put in power during his presidency.
You also went on to do some incredibly difficult work in the state of capture report, which you published in 2016 before you came to Harvard. It has been publicized a lot in the media. Your life has been under threat. You’ve lived in incredible danger. For the people who ask questions about how you exercise leadership and stay alive when the stakes are high and the threats are severe. Can you share with us one example of when you felt incredibly threatened and in danger? What was that circumstance? When was that? How did you fortify yourself in sustaining and navigating that situation? Is there an example you could share with us?
A small correction about my ascendancy to the Public Protector position. The president did not nominate me. The appointment of this is the same as the appointment of judges. With the judges, it’s the Judicial Services Commission that selects, interviews, shortlist, and sends name to the president. In the case of the Public Protector, it’s the same process as public nominations.
Instead of the JSC, a special committee of parliament and adjunct committee sifts those names to the bare minimum, interviews a few, and then gives only one name to the president. This is interesting because those who support former President Zuma have never complained that he never appointed me as Public Protector or any other Public Protector because he was given only one name. When I wound up by the Commission of Inquiry on State if I should be appointed and the Chief Justice should only give the president one name, this has been distorted into that narrative.
The president did not appoint the Chair of the Commission simply because he didn’t nominate him. It’s a process whereas an expert in the HR process yourself, there’s a separation between selection and appointment. The president appointed judges. In the cases where I felt my life was threatened, you’ve already mentioned the Public Protector days when proverbial death threats were thrown my way. A literal one was also labeled a spy, which made it possible for any lunatic to kill me as a good person. A person could have killed me as a good person because he would think this person does not deserve to live because this person sold people during apartheid and people died.
Thank God those spy stories were the most ludicrous stories you could ever find as a Christian. I always say God made people not understand each other during the Tower of Babel moment. God ensured that our intelligence services had a lot going for them except intelligence because they couldn’t build their spy stories on truth. If they built them on truth, they could have framed me very nicely.
Even my kids said, “What a stupid way of framing you. Don’t they know that,” because they read. If you got to frame a person, you get the truth. Maybe 70% or 80% of it and then embellish it terribly so that people can believe it. They got it so wrong. All those three spy stories did not correlate. Different times of recruitment in each story and different handlers.
There were two worst ones. One said I’m spying for America against an African president to find out who hates America. I said, “What a stupid mission? Why would America use a Public Protector in South Africa to find out which presidents don’t like America?” You would think that was weird, the second thing was, “How was I doing the spying?” I was using Public Protectors, ombudsmen, or institutions in African countries to do my work. You know all of these institutions are at arm’s length to the government. All of it was twisted. Weirdly, that was the spy story that the government chose to tell the world and said they would investigate me for being a spy.
The first two were ridiculous, one of which was that I was CIA and Mossad. CIA is American. Mossad is Israeli, and MI-6 which is the UK. Perhaps you can’t be a triple agent, but the weird part was that it claimed to be a transcript of a conversation between me and the others. Seemingly all of these agents from these three different agencies allegedly knew I was with Mossad in this meeting, and I went for Mossad, CIA, and MI-6. That was one of the terrible times with threats to kill me and threats to kill my son. I must say that if you are talking about a real life and death matter, it has been more recent. It was in 2019 at Kilimanjaro.
It came from making a mistake. In my final days of preparing to summit Kilimanjaro, I forgot that my whole purpose was to summit Kilimanjaro, and that was the main thing. I worried that I had been to Italy and gained weight because they had this lovely dairy-free yogurt, tea, and things like that. People in Kilimanjaro are going for the Keto diet.
On summit day, my legs started to feel like I borrowed them from a jellyfish. What saved me was I lost maybe 95% or 90% of my sight. That was when the doctor stepped in and see it. He was now threatening to send me home. He then realized it was a sugar deficiency and started pumping me with sugar. I eventually did the summit and all three summits. That, for me, was a life-threatening moment.
I wouldn’t encourage anybody to proceed after being told what your condition is and you can’t see because you are on the mountain. There’s no real body scan to see what part of your body may be damaged. You are talking about courage. Yes, it was courage, but this courage that makes you think you are invincible, I would not recommend it to anybody. I’m grateful I lived to tell the story.
Congratulations, summiting Kilimanjaro is a pretty notable feat in anybody’s life. That’s amazing. Next time, trips to Italy and gelato ice cream. There’s always a trade-off for those kinds of wonderful tastings in life, isn’t there?
Maybe I read the book Eat, Pray, Love too much. It was not a personal achievement. It was possible for me to proceed because we were doing this for girls. It is a project of the Nelson Mandela Foundation collaborating with the Imbumba Foundation. It’s called Trek-4-Mandela. It was important for me to summit two reasons: we get sponsored to do it to get the (sanitary) pads for the girls.
Secondly, what also kept me going is what gives you courage. If you think about why elephants and lions are courageous, anything in a little spring book is courageous. It’s when it’s defending somebody else. For me, courage came from the fact that it was about not only the little girls but also about what message I would be sent to the girls.
We tell them, “You always have to distinguish between the end of your comfort zone and the impossible. Often, what you think is impossible is simply the edge of your comfort zone. You need to push a little bit further, and you’ll realize that it’s difficult but not impossible.” It was only possible for me because I kept thinking about the girls.You always have to distinguish between the end of your comfort zone and the impossible. Often what you think is impossible is simply the edge of your comfort zone, and you need to push a little bit further and realize that it's difficult but not… Click To Tweet
That is wonderful to me. It’s such an important distinction in terms of what is courage, what is possible, and what is impossible. As we know, Nelson Mandela famously once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done,” which shifts me into what has been your big Mandela Moment. You’ve had so many. You were part of the team that helped craft and negotiate the new constitution of South Africa, which Mandela promulgated in 1996 or 1995, if I recall correctly. You’ve had so many occasions. What stands out for you as a memorable Mandela Moment? A moment that touched your heart, opened your mind, and inspired you to do better and be better.
If possible, I will give you two Mandela Moments for me. One, I wasn’t there, but it touched me, and then the second one, I was there. While working in the department, I was introduced to him during the negotiations when we helped the ANC with policies, and I was involved with the local Government Transition Act and later with the constitution drafting process.
There were two defining moments for me about Mandela’s character. It wasn’t so much about courage as we understand it. We think courage is about staring down a lion and living to tell the story. For me, it was about courage accepting vulnerability, and accepting that it’s okay for things not to be perfect. The first one, I wasn’t there. It was one of my staff members, when we were talking, we had this learning and growing together leadership conversation with my team at the Department of Justice Local Mission, and even at the Public Protector, we had the same approach.
He told us the story about National AIDS Day. This was at the height of the AIDS campaign. At 12:00, there was an arrangement to light a candle for the awareness of AIDS. It had to be done at 12:00. All departments were required to light it at exactly 12:00. In the presidency, the candle lighting meant the media was there and everyone.
As Mandela was moving to light the candle, his protectors normally had to move first to ensure they positioned themselves. One guy moved and tripped on one of the electrical wires and dropped the candle and everything. The moment was lost. Most leaders, not soul leaders but positional people, would be more concerned about their embarrassment and the loss of this big moment, “What were you thinking?” “Sorry about that.” Mandela went to this guy, touched him on his shoulder, and asked him, “Are you okay?” It was his humanity. Ubuntu, that humans are more important than our glory moments. We are more glorious when we step up for fellow human beings and raise them when they feel down.
That first occasion, do you recall when that was?
I wasn’t there. This story was told to me by one of my staff members in 1998. This would have happened in 1998 on the 1st of December, International AIDS Day. My experience with him was around the same year we were supposed to deliver the Equality Act. He had been pushing us to meet a particular deadline on the Equality Act and the National Action Plan on Human Rights. We were supposed to bring the National Action Plan. We eventually ended up with just a framework because there was not enough time to consult civil society and everything.
As a young professional, I found that he was magnanimous in accepting the document and having to readjust his speech to deliver a framework instead of a completed national action plan. It showed me that he seemed to be respectful of both the process and outcomes and understood that the people he led, who would have been our minister and us as staff, were humans.
When we didn’t bring to the table what we had signed up for, we already had tortured ourselves, so there was no need to be tortured. Other leaders have said, “This is not the right platform.” People started screaming in public about what was promised. They were too embarrassed to face the world without the glorious moment the budget voted for. It’s about emotional intelligence. It’s about emotional agility or the ability to dance with change as a leader, embrace the reality you are confronted with, and still lead and affirm the humanity of people so that you can grow them and they can continue to step up.
That’s such a wonderful example. What often struck me about you, and I have heard so many friends, colleagues, and professionals say similar things, you, too, have this remarkable emotional calmness and intellectual agility. Have you always been like this? How did you master that absolute emotional calmness even in times of great threat and crisis? I have seen you do that. Were you always like that? How did you master that?
I started being calm, but it was mixed with a lack of assertiveness and an inability to draw boundaries, and being kind and nice because that was my way of ending my place in the world. It’s a long story that I talk about in a letter to my sixteen-year-old that was published in an old magazine some years ago. When I became a young person and started feeling that people were taking me for granted or were given a hand and were taking an arm, I moved from being polite to aggressive.
Until I met another woman leader because leaders raise other leaders, who told me that it was important to raise the quality of my arguments and respect the humanity of whoever I was dealing with. When I degrade the person I’m arguing with, my whole point is lost. I had spoken, and some women had taken a different approach to the issue of employment equity. This was in the early-’90s when we were still investigating whether it would be anti-discrimination or including positive measures.
That helped me, but it didn’t help me fully because what then I did was I suppressed my feelings, and you know that suppressed feelings are an opportunity to eventually come out. I still didn’t have the tools to process the feelings. I had a bit of a tough time planning a small unit, but I worked in the Department of Justice. I remember one of my colleagues eventually gave me a book, Love Is Letting Go of Fear, by Gerald Jampolsky. To cut the long story short, for me, it was reading Louise L. Hay, You Can Heal Your Life. That changed my life.
Learning to manage my own head space. Learning to give people an understanding that people are not the way they should be, they are the way they are. We react so badly toward other people. Despite reality, we keep telling ourselves that people should be as we want them to be. When you understand that people are doing their best, you can move them. Still, you have to accept that that’s where they are at the time and then find a way to lead or influence them to start thinking, feeling, and acting differently.
I’m grateful for that part because it helped me when I eventually was in the Lower Reform Commission. The early days of the South African Women Lawyers Organization or Association. Lastly, during my days as Public Protector, I was so grateful that my past and the turbulence of my past and lessons from those had prepared me for the turbulence as a Public Protector.
You had a lot of heat. I want to go back briefly to those moments when you had a dead cat thrown outside your home. When you talk about those days and maintaining your composure and fortifying your strength, can you briefly share the key steps you took to help you navigate that particular dangerous situation?
All threats were reported to the police. I also had protectors, not at home, only mobile ones. It’s a long story of why I didn’t have protectors at home when both my predecessors and successors were given protectors. My successor was given a protector even before she came to office on Friday, although her term started on Monday. Other than reporting these matters to the police. For me, my safety comes from also prayer and meditation. Leaning on the village that I’m part of, which is the Faith Community Village, my friends, and my family. Trusting that, as my father used to say, “We are here in this world at the mercy of our creator, and no one will take your life unless our creator says that’s the time.”
It is supported by incredible faith and belief in terms of our higher power taking care of us.
Also, the team at the Public Protector. One of the things that helped me when I started that office was that I came there on a high horse knowing how things should be done. I was unhappy with the emphasis on case numbers instead of where investigations were done. I felt that the wrong tools were given. Findings of lack of maladministration were greatly diminished because of the investigation’s shortness. This was the end of 2011. That helped me because, at the beginning of 2012, I felt I had been unfollowed on Twitter and in real life. I had this conversation with a total stranger who now happens to be the SARS Commissioner, Edward Kieswetter.
I told him that I felt that my staff was not with me. I think I did the right thing, and he said, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” He advanced on what they had done in various organizations where he had worked, including SARS, about getting the team to determine the institution’s purpose instead of the mandate.
To understand the mandate is to investigate, report, and take appropriate remedial action, but what’s the why? Why do you do this? What value do you add to society? We did them for a whole year, and it meant losing time. It also meant the wording was not entirely mine. Probably I only added 10% to the wording. In the end, we had a purpose that was crafted by all. Even with the cases, they were dealt with in such a way that everyone knew their voice counted. Therefore, when these attacks occurred, people thought they were taking me. The staff were the ones who defended these matters more rigorously because they knew that for me to sign off, they had to persuade me.
You have touched on your dad and your parents. I know you were born in Johannesburg and Soweto. You spend part of your time in Johannesburg in South Africa and part of your time in Swaziland. If I recall correctly, your parents were originally from Swaziland. How do you think your early childhood shaped you? I know they were informal traders. You had this life in two countries. You did your first Law degree in Swaziland and finished your LLB in 1990 at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. What shaped you with these two countries, influences, your parents, and your childhood? What ignited this passion you have in the world?
I would say that I got my deep sense of justice from both my parents. My father was passionate about justice for himself and others as entrepreneurs. He was a pioneer in the taxi industry and the puzzle shop industry. They periodically got arrested for trading without licenses, yet the system would not give them licenses. He would tell me these stories about how he had defended himself in court.
He told the magistrate, “The people who should be on trial should be your government and not me because I have money here with me, and I can pay for the license if you give it to me.” My father would have been a lawyer had he seen the inside of a classroom. He had never been to class because he grew up on farms in Mpumalanga. They were not allowed to go to school. He never saw the inside of the classroom, but he taught himself to read and write and mostly read the Bible.
My mom, on the other hand, would have been a social worker had she been educated. She was always solving people’s problems. On the issue of justice, she was passionate about gender justice. She used to tell us stories about her first marriage. Her first marriage involved gender-based violence. How she told the story was about how some days it was her who slept in the hospital. On some days, it was the guy. She wasn’t going to take anything like that. That was partly the influence.
Regarding integrity, my parents would never let you show up at home with something they never paid for. You always had to account for why you have this. Having lived between South Africa and Swaziland, I was born in Gauteng, although raised in Soweto. Life between South Africa and Swaziland taught me to embrace diversity because I never felt I belonged anywhere.
When I was in Soweto, I wouldn’t join in the fashion. When I was in Swaziland, I felt like I was looking in from the outside. I think that helped me to be able to embrace the humanity of anyone regardless of race, nationality, gender, age, or class. Living in Swaziland taught me what it sometimes means to go without food. Therefore, one of the concerns I have is poverty, in addition to inequality.
My early stages and their influence on justice also taught me about there’s a lot of good in this world, we just have to look around because even though my parents could not take me through to university, strangers stepped in. I finished high school and went to university because total strangers stepped in and paid.
That gives us a lot of insight regarding your positive belief in humanity and our fellow human beings. It shows and shines in so many different ways. I wonder what you would say to many young girls and boys, whether they are on the streets of Soweto or the streets of other poverty-stricken areas in the world. What would you say to them about hope, and how do they keep that beacon of light shining when they seem dark?
To every young girl or boy here in South Africa and Africa and the world, I would say firstly, I’m sorry that my generation did not go fine enough in making this world a better place, but I’m certain that we did the best we could. I would say that the world is better now than it was 100, 200 or 1,000 years ago. It’s better in terms of embracing the humanity of everyone. There are more opportunities. Yes, there’s GBV, racism, ageism, classism, and all sorts of wrongs, but do not lose hope. Hope is that little seed inside us that keeps telling you that today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today. You just have to trust life. Tomorrow will not get better on its own. Each one of you, as young people, has to show up, step up, and give life your best shot.
Profound words, and then our final closing moments. Any final thoughts or takeaways either about leadership in the world leading boldly into the future, or any final thoughts about what you think Mandela would say to the world today?
What we often ask when we speak about Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Helen Suzman, Bishop Tutu, de Klerk, and many of those courageous leaders who stepped out of line and moved the needle is, what are we going to do to pay our debt of gratitude to them? My approach is instead of wasting our time focusing on what they failed to achieve, which those who teach history have to do that analysis, but at the level of civil leadership, social leadership, and state leadership, let’s not waste our time on what they failed to achieve. Let’s look at what they left us with.
This is not just in South Africa. That includes Nkrumah, Kaunda, and all of the other leaders. Let’s look at what they achieved with the opportunities they had and what opportunities we have in our time to step up boldly and make a difference for ourselves and everyone else in the interest of a more ethical world anchored in integrity. This more just world particularly embraces social justice and, lastly, a world that is not left to climate change. As part of ubuntu, we protect our shared humanity and our shared habitat, which is planet Earth.We need to look at what opportunities we have in our time to step up boldly and make a difference for ourselves and everyone else. Click To Tweet
On that glorious note, Nelson Mandela once said, “A good head and a good heart are a formidable combination.” I want to thank you. You are a woman I admire, respect, and love. Thank you for your formidable combination. Thank you for your gift to South Africa. Thank you for your great gift to the world.
It has been a privilege. Thank you.
What a heartwarming and sobering conversation with Advocate Professor Thuli Madonsela. I first met Thuli professionally when she was a former Public Protector of South Africa. It was an unexpected delight or perhaps divine intervention when I walked into an exciting classroom chatter, our first day in class at Harvard Business School, to see a smiling Thuli across the room.
We recently celebrated a big birthday to honor the gift of her birth. It was a time for me to pause and reflect upon the multiple talents she so generously gifts to the world. Thuli is truly one of the most understated, bold, fearless, and smart leaders often touted for president of South Africa. She’s a modern Mandela in many ways, and certainly in how she thinks, acts, and leads.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC as we call it, was established in 1995 during Nelson Mandela’s presidency. It was set up by the newly democratically elected South African National Unity government just after apartheid’s demise. As the name suggests, its prime purpose was to promote the full and transparent disclosure of the truth, reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing among the perpetrators and victims of the apartheid era. Led by the late and great Archbishop Desmond Tutu, applauded worldwide for healing the wounds of a nation, it took the testimonies of around 21,000 victims, 2,000 of them were televised in public hearings. It was raw, painful, and deep emotions and memories on full public display.
Thuli delves into, shares with us today, and helps all of us, not only in South Africa but in the United States of America and worldwide, with clues about how we heal these angry and deep divides. What are the lessons and shortcomings of the TRC? There are four big takeaways. The first is that despite its overall success, much more difficult and bold work must be done. The second is that without fully disclosing the truth, there is no reconciliation. The third is that without fair and equitable reparations, there is no justice. Finally, without restorative justice to right the wrongs of the past, there is no peace.
Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making clear, thoughtful choices, and bold leadership is about taking bold action one small step at a time. One small step for you, but together, one giant step for humanity. Come back soon. Share with your friends and join our global leadership movement for change because if not you, then who? If not now, then when? Take care and take thoughtful bold action.
- Social Justice
- Thuli Madonsela
- Eat, Pray, Love
- Imbumba Foundation
- Love Is Letting Go of Fear
- You Can Heal Your Life
- Thuma Foundation
About Professor Thuli Madonsela
Professor Thulisile “Thuli” Madonsela, an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, is the law trust chair in social justice and a law professor at the University of Stellenbosch, where she conducts and coordinates social justice research and teaches constitutional and administrative law. She is the founder of the Thuma Foundation, an independent democracy leadership and literacy public benefit organization, and convener of the Social Justice M-Plan, a Marshall Plan-like initiative aimed at catalyzing progress towards ending poverty and reducing inequality by 2030, in line with the National Development Plan (NDP) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). She is a monthly columnist for the Financial Mail and City Press/Rapport and occasionally writes for other newspapers.
A multiple award-winning legal professional with over 50 national and global awards, Thuli Madonsela has eight honorary doctor of law degrees, one of which was awarded by the Law Society of Canada. She holds a BA in Law from Unisa, a Bachelor of Law degree from Wits University, and a Harvard Advanced Leadership Certificate, and has been trained in legal drafting, leadership, strategic planning, scenario planning, gender mainstreaming, mediation, and arbitration, and training facilitation, among other things.