She is always in the public eye through the media shining a spotlight on her work, but what is the real relationship between the media and the public protector? Liesl Venter chats to Thuli Madonsela, the public protector who believes her role is to protect the rights of ordinary people.
Mr N was terminated from the public service because his poor health condition made it difficult for him to perform his duties.
The government department that employed him made him a verbal offer, which included early retirement without the reduction of pension benefits and an added period of service, including the payment of a lump sum salary for that period. It was never confirmed in writing.
Subsequent to this arrangement his services were terminated without following proper procedures and in the process the government failed to keep their end of the bargain, leaving the gravely ill Mr N with no medical aid subsidy. As a result his entire monthly pension went to medical expenses.
Advocate Thuli Madonsela, South Africa’s public protector, regales the story to me during an interview in Pretoria. She animatedly tells how an investigation by her office managed to right the wrong and transform Mr N’s life.
“It may seem like an insignificant case to some, but it is cases such as these that reinforce the role of my office in protecting the rights of ordinary people.”
Were it not for the media, says Madonsela, people like Mr N would never approach her office, as they would just simply not know about this avenue open to them.
This is why she actively builds relationships with the media. “It is not about me, Thuli, but rather about my office giving meaning to the South African Constitution,” she says. “I regard the media as a very important stakeholder. It is after all, among other avenues, through the media that my office is able to give effect to the constitutional imperatives of being accessible to all persons and communities.”
Her office clearly understands the importance of the media. A request for an interview is acknowledged and arranged within days. And when we sit down there is no hesitancy in sharing information. She is a calm, collected woman who is on top of her game.
“My relationship with the media is mutually beneficial. The work of the Public Protector and the media has many similarities including our ‘watchdog’ function where we are all seeking to exact accountability with state affairs and serving as a voice for the voiceless.”
But it goes further than that, she says. “Because my institution does not have adequate funding, it relies heavily on the media to educate people about its mandate and role, including how it helps people and how people can access the services.”
While her fearless investigations into the activities of top government officials such as former Minister Sicelo Shiceka and police chief Bheki Cele have gained her some notoriety and led to some pretty impressive newspaper headlines, that is not what makes her tick.
“There is no difference in my office between a minister and an average Joe. We treat them all the same and our process of investigation is the same.”
This approach also applies to media. She doesn’t differentiate between publications. To her a journalist is a journalist and therefore deserving of her time. “I think the media is a key role player when it comes to moral suasion, which is important for the institution, particularly in regards to the implementation of remedial action. The media also ensures public accountability and responsiveness which results in transparency and active citizens.”
At the same time, she says, the media holds her accountable as a person and an office that exercises public power and control over state resources.
So, she makes time to meet with the media regardless of how busy her schedule is and she ensures that the Public Protector website is kept up to date with the most relevant information, be it press releases or speeches. She also religiously communicates with the media about investigations and reports.
“We have an open door policy,” says Madonsela. “Being responsive to the media’s needs, including adherence to their deadlines and understanding the fast-paced environment within which they operate, is just professional behaviour, but it also goes a long way in ensuring a strong and mutually beneficial relationship.”
For her it is quite simply about respecting one another and allowing one another the space to achieve one’s mandate.
“Accepting bonafides, and that sometimes mistakes are made by us or by the media for that matter, strengthens the relationship,” she says as it is about communication, understanding and trust between the
Because without the media, Madonsela says, she would never have been able to make a difference to Mr N.
“It is all the Mr Ns that need to know they can approach my office and receive a quick and free service when they have complaints about the services or conduct of the State. Whether it is social grants, housing, identity documents, pensions or suspected acts of maladministration or abuse of power. Through the media I can reach people and tell them they don’t need to suffer unnecessarily.”
She told of a woman who had struggled to get UIF for four years. “Like Mr N, she had tried every avenue available to her to get them to pay. She finally came to us in desperation after hearing in the media about one of the high-profile cases we had covered. Unintentionally, the media directs people to us all the time even though they really only ever report on the more high-profile cases,” she explains.
“And the long-term value of my office lies not with the people that we get so much coverage on, but rather in the administrative justice we do for the ordinary person.”
Madonsela admits that her office has angered senior government officials at times and that she is not always popular for her investigations or subsequent findings. “The Presidency, I must say, has always taken the office seriously, maybe not always in respect of the actual working of the office, but definitely in terms of the media. Maybe because of the coverage we have generated because we have been consistent and because we don’t differentiate between people, there has been a certain amount of respect for the office developing.
“Also because of the interest the media has taken in the investigations we have done, there is definitely a sense that people are starting to factor in the possibility of being held accountable for their actions,” she says. “It is more than the public protector holding me accountable; it is that the media are also going to cover this story. So we are no longer sweeping things under the carpet – people are going to know.”
While she is a firm supporter of freedom of the press and the inclusion of the public interest clause in the Protection of Information Bill, she continues to voice her concern when the media go off on a tangent and publish unverified information or leaked reports.
Not everything can be claimed to be in the public interest, she says. Unethical conduct influenced by greed in order to be first with a story leaves her cold.
Madonsela is a stickler for procedure and will not tolerate the jeopardising of investigations for the sake of a headline.
“When we ask that confidential information not be published, there is a reason for that. Would it really make such a difference to wait for a few days for a final report as opposed to publishing a leaked document that is sometimes still in draft form?” she asks.
“We have to work together to strengthen our democracy,” she says. “We can only do that if we can trust and rely on one another.”
And that requires compromise. Something she has proven to be more than willing to do.
This story was first published in The Media magazine.
Photo: courtesy of AVUSA.