Transparency International (TI) last week presented its annual Integrity Award to Thuli Madonsela of South Africa. She holds a title unusual in governance: “Public Protector“. And if you read all the statutory fine print, it would seem a grand label attached to slight power. But TI made the right call. In her five-year tenure in the non-partisan post, Madonsela has made a career of using every last ounce of her authority to expose corruption even at the highest levels—including the office of the presidency. In March 2014 she released a report that found President Jacob Zuma responsible for spending 246 million rand (USD 22 million) of taxpayer money on unwarranted improvements to his home compound in Nkandla. The report was a political bombshell. But it was remarkable for its dry, just-the-facts forensic style. There was no hint of witch-hunt in its 447 pages. Still, “expose” is the key word here. South Africa’s Public Protector has no right to prosecute—only to investigate and inform the citizenry of findings. So Madonsela can only protect the public by letting them know when politicians and officials go awry. Others—prosecutors, judges, legislators, civil society organizations and voters—must take it from there. But the power to expose is potent. In 2012-13 her office received no fewer than 35,000 requests from citizens to investigate complaints against public officials.
Brookings welcomed Madonsela in both 2012 and 2014 to the World Forum on Governance (WFG), its multi-stakeholder project on integrity in the public and private sectors. The Forum has been convened three times in Prague, and was strongly supported by former US ambassador—and now Brookings visiting fellow in Governance Studies—Norm Eisen. Forum co-directors were Senior Fellow Thomas Mann, Nonresident Senior Fellow Stephen Davis and Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. As a person, Madonsela proved soft-spoken—one leans in to hear her speak—and she projects modesty. But in a dinner dialogue moderated by Ornstein with then-US Department of Justice Criminal Division chief Lanny Breuer, Madonsela demonstrated an imperturbability and dedication to public sector integrity and accountability. She has had to be steely. Her Nkandla report triggered a wave of intense, and intensely personal, attacks on Madonsela. She has weathered the storm and appears to retain the confidence of ordinary citizens. There is even a Facebook page called “Support Thuli Madonsela, Our Public Protector” with nearly 52,000 likes. Her mentor in this respect was former president Nelson Mandela; Madonsela credits him with inspiring her to pursue justice regardless of personal cost.
TI’s award throws an international spotlight on both Madonsela and the office of Public Protector. Other jurisdictions have embedded similar agencies into government; typically they bear the title of Ombudsman. Some have prosecutorial authority and others, as in South Africa, only the power to probe and reveal. But the unique title and expectation that South Africa’s constitution placed on this office—to protect the public from their own officials—sets an example that may now get further international traction. Indeed, an iconic photograph from the last Brookings’ World Forum on Governance shows a determined-looking Madonsela standing beside Daria Kaleniuk, a young Ukrainian democracy advocate, who is sporting a T-shirt reading, in big yellow letters, ‘F*ck Corruption’. The image captures how WFG has served as a means of cross-fertilizing lessons and experience. But Madonsela’s case suggests that countries such as Ukraine, if it hopes to protect the public, need not only ambitious fixes in governance structure, but character in leadership.