Her full name Thulisile means “somebody who quietens people’ or ‘the one who made us calm down’. Her name, in itself, is almost indicative of the way Madonsela carries out her daily duties.
She is however humbled by the suggestion.
“You know they say you shouldn’t call yourself a lady, if you call yourself a lady then you are not. I will leave people to make that decision for themselves,” she says, sitting in her office in Pretoria.
“I think however that my children feel I am calm most of the time. But I am calm and hard.”
Drawing on her childhood, a graceful and soft-spoken Madonsela recalls her father’s concept of education.
“My father was a labourer in the electrical industry. When he retired after an illness, he operated what is now called a long distance taxi. He would take his car to Swaziland on a Friday and come back on a Sunday. He obviously charged those passengers.
“His concept of education was literally old thinking, where you needed to be educated enough to converse with white people to take instructions. And once you are able to be educated enough to take instructions it was a waste of money to proceed with your education.”
It was Madonsela’s mother who pushed for her daughter’s further tertiary education.
“My mother was a domestic worker. She then left domestic work to become a housewife but was also a small trader selling little refreshments at school.
“She felt very strongly that education is the key out of poverty and is also the means of uplifting society. When she was younger, she had an opportunity to be educated but didn’t take it.
Madonsela read towards her law degree at the University of Swaziland: “If I didn’t resonate with what was being said in class I would question it. Most of my lecturers didn’t find it to be a problem and as a result I got to relate to some of them beyond school.”
The degree later saw her becoming a human rights lawyer and equality expert. Eventually, she was chosen as one of the experts who helped the Constitutional Assembly to draft the Constitution in 1994.
She was 32 at the time.
“It was a privilege to have been selected. It was fairly early in my career. I was appointed as one of the 11 experts, but I wouldn’t say I was qualified as one, so I would say it was a real privilege. It also allowed me to grow in terms of Constitutional understanding.
“It was wonderful seeing parliamentarian’s debate; they were a lot calmer than they are these days.”
Madonsela met Albertina Sisulu in the early 80s and considers the struggle icon as one of her mentors.
“I remembered and learnt from her about quiet dignity and grace.”
She attributes her success as Public Protector to being blessed with a team that is passionate about their jobs. Time as no issue for staff who are dedicated enough to work on weekends, she says.
“People genuinely want to help. It looks like I’m working hard but the reality is there are a whole lot of people who are working harder.”
* Read more about the Public Protector’s Nkandla investigations in The Citizen on Monday, August 5.