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7 Life lessons from Prof. Thuli Madonsela

Professor Thuli Madonsela spent seven years holding the government to account as Public Protector and most of her adult life fighting against injustice. Here’s how she does it.

26 July 2023 | By Wanita Nicol

As a lawyer and former Public Protector, Prof Thuli Madonsela has always championed justice and integrity and it hasn’t always been easy. These are the life lessons she’s picked up along the way. 

1. Life is balanced

There were times in parliament when Madonsela felt disrespected because she was a woman. “I felt that at times people talked at me and down. And for a moment, I wondered (although I didn’t say it), if I had been my predecessors, would they have talked to me like that,” she remarks. But there were advantages to being a woman in her position as well. “I actually found that part of the reason I became famous was because I was a woman. Society had low expectations for both the job and me, as a woman – especially from the media. So, every little thing I did well was celebrated. As a woman, I’ve been criticised excessively unfairly, but I’ve also been rewarded excessively unfairly. So, it’s balanced.” 

2. Choose peace

“I do stand my ground when I must, but my go-to place, my first port of call, is finding each other, and I’ve found that it works,” says Madonsela. “Even now, as we are trying to advance justice, our first port of call is, let’s find each other. And of course, if we don’t find each other, then we have to assert our rights and our understanding of where the truth lies. But I do think that sustainable solutions are better found when you find each other, because then you both grow from the process.”

3. Courage happens when compassion meets commitment

“My courage comes, firstly, from compassion,” says Madonsela. “I think I get it from my mother. I just am touched by other people’s experiences of injustice or any harm. And from that, the immediate thing is a sense of commitment. And when you have compassion and commitment, courage is automatic. The courage to restore justice. I don’t think justice is what the public protector does or the courts do. Justice is what we’re supposed to do every day.”

4. You need a village

“Nobody can go alone,” says Madonsela. “It starts with compassion, commitment and courage, but what keeps you going is knowing that somebody’s got your back. No matter how courageous you are, it’s tough if you think you are a lone ranger. So, in my case, I’ve always felt God has got my back. And wherever He leads me, He will be with me. I’ve also always had my team – I was grateful to have a team who was highly committed to the work that we were doing. And the faith community. And my family. It takes a whole village.”

5. Respond from your head, not your hurt

“When I get criticism, there are two things I do: The first thing is, I’m sad, like most people, and sometimes angry. But I take a deep breath. Something I learnt in my thirties is, don’t act when you’ve just been triggered. Sometimes I pray, sometimes I meditate. Online, it’s very easy to do affirmations and meditate, and then when you respond, you’re fine. Then I look at, is it true? Because often criticism is fair. And if it is irrational, I just ignore it and stand my ground.”

6. Make them funny

When someone is really annoying Madonsela, she pictures them in an amusing way – she may even sneak a quiet smile. “It’s a trick I learnt from spiritual teachings and, more recently, [Bahamian evangelist] Myles Munroe – that you really have to have an image of them that’s funny. And then later, I realise it’s not personal – everyone is doing the best they can based on their world view.” 

7. Acknowledge your part in the encounter

In her mid-thirties, Madonsela read Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. “It taught me to understand that I am also part of the problem at times,” she says. “So, instead of blaming everyone, I had to begin to see in what ways I can de-escalate the tension.”

IMAGE: Julia Janse van Vuuren