Thuli Madonsela was called a CIA spy by a South African deputy minister and received death threats as she pursued politicians in her role as the nation’s graft ombudsman. Now she’s planning a last round of potentially explosive revelations before she steps down next month.
In her sights is what South Africans call “state capture,” a reference to allegations that a wealthy family, the Guptas, used its friendship with President Jacob Zuma for profit and influence. In one instance, Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas said the Guptas offered him the post of finance minister. The controversy around the family prompted the nation’s largest banks to close accounts belonging to companies owned by the Guptas, who are in business with Zuma’s son. Both Zuma and the Guptas deny wrongdoing.
“We are coming in because the investigation alleges that some cabinet members were corruptly appointed, or appointed in a manner where the president allowed the Gupta family, which has business links with his family, to have a say in the appointment of cabinet members,” Madonsela, 53, said in an interview in Pretoria, the capital.
She’s also probing allegations that some public funds meant for memorial services to mourn the death of Nelson Mandela in December 2013 were stolen by public officials working with business people. It’s one of about 200 cases she and her investigators want to wrap up before she steps down on Oct. 15.
Named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2014, Madonsela has chalked up notable successes during her seven years as public protector.
After her probe of the use of public funds to pay for an upgrade of Zuma’s private home in the village of Nkandla, the ruling African National Congress used its 62 percent majority in the National Assembly to block parliamentary action against the president. Then, the Constitutional Court ruled that Zuma violated the law by not abiding by her recommendation that he repay some of the money, and ordered him to comply.
Other casualties of her investigations include Police Commissioner Bheki Cele, who Madonsela said broke state procurement rules when he authorized payment for a lease for new police headquarters, and Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, who Madonsela said failed to cooperate in the lease probe. Both denied wrongdoing, and both were fired.
“She has really elevated the status of the office,” Sanusha Naidu, political analyst at the Pretoria-based Institute for Global Dialogue, said by phone. “That visibility has also opened what has become an interesting level of understanding among the ordinary people of South Africa about the separation of powers, about the issues of transparency and accountability.”
Along with success have come enemies
ANC Youth League President Collen Maine, speaking to reporters in Johannesburg on Sunday about Madonsela’s “state capture” investigation, said she “is handled” by the CIA. That accusation was leveled previously by Deputy Defense Minister Kebby Maphatsoe, who called her a “CIA agent” in 2014 for targeting the ruling party. Madonsela described that barb as both sad and funny. Then there have been text messages threatening her life, with one just two months ago saying, “You are a dead public protector.”