Doing her job: Thuli Madonsela

Most thinking South Africans (I hope!) side with Public Protector Thuli Madonsela in her current spat with the ANC leadership over her challenge to President Zuma to follow parliamentary procedure and establish a committee to examine her Nkandla Report. She has dutifully carried out her mandate in terms of the Constitution and the Public Protector Act in investigating the issue and submitting her report. She is also, most believe, correct in nudging the President to act in accordance with the law (specifically the Executive Members Ethics Act) in this matter. The reaction from the ANC, that many consider a political denial of her authority, is disturbing.

It is disturbing because it suggests a certain contempt for her Constitutional role and duty to see that her task as Public Protector is carried out without fear nor favour. When we think of the word psychopath, or the condition of psychopathy, we all too easily fall into the stereotype of violent, homicidal and unstable people. But not all psychopaths are Hannibal Lecters or Adolf Hitlers. Psychopaths are all too common. And many come across as charming, but beneath the charm is a readiness to manipulate people and situations for their own ends. Insofar as we do this regularly we might be seen to have psychopathic tendencies.

Psychologists tell us that genuine psychopaths are people usually filled with a sense of their own importance and an overwhelming concern for their own interests (often termed narcissists), addicted to power and lacking in concern for others. They are usually unwilling to take responsibility for their actions because they have no sense of guilt. When confronted with their faults they often lie or deflect blame onto others. Sadly, it is agreed that many psychopaths are drawn to the ‘public’ professions including politics. When confronted with their faults, many psychopathic politicians, e.g. the late United States President Richard Nixon, resort to aggression, shifting of blame, denial of wrongdoing, and cover-ups. Often the tone of denial takes the form of accusations of disloyalty and suggestions of conspiracy – what political scientist Richard Hofstadter famously called the paranoid in politics.

I am not saying that Thuli Madonsela’s opponents are psychopaths or paranoid. But the flat denial that correct parliamentary procedure has not been followed, has in fact been deflected from the proper committee, and the suggestion of ideological motivation in investigating Nkandla, do not rest easy with many of us.

In contrast, Ms Madonsela’s dogged pursuit of the truth, the proper execution of her job, and her willingness to see that her report is properly followed up according the established norms makes her an attractive public figure.  It would be easier for her to avoid confrontations with the establishment; indeed it would guarantee her professional advancement in the future once her term of office has ended. But she sees herself, it seems, as serving the office, the public and the Constitution. Contrary to claims that she’s an opposition flunky, she is an exemplary public servant.

If anything, she is the Constitution’s ‘flunky’ (as, dare I say it, we all should be), a Constitution that belongs to all South Africans and not a document that serves individual or group vested interests.

And she’s certainly no psychopath!

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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