On 3 January, former Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, assumed her role as the Head of Social Justice at Stellenbosch University’s Law Faculty. The Forbes Africa Person of the Year 2016 awardee shows up for our interview in a body-hugging African print Khosi Nkosi dress with colourful tassels and a seemingly heavy backpack on one side of her shoulder.
It takes her about five minutes to get ready for a photoshoot in her new office space and she comes out with a matte face and shiny lips. Professor Madonsela talks about being a high school teacher at Naledi High School, and later a lecturer at Wits University.
“Once a teacher always a teacher. I started out as a schoolteacher and I have taught in three schools in my life over the years. I think teaching is one of the greatest tools to transform people’s minds and to empower people in order for them to realise their full potential,” Madonsela says.
Some of her achievements include honorary doctorates in law from the universities of Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Fort Hare and Rhodes University. She has also been the recipient of a number of prestigious awards, such as the Law Society of South Africa’s inaugural Truth and Justice Award; the German Africa Foundation’s annual prize; Transparency International’s prestigious Integrity Award in 2014; and, in the same year, she was listed as one of Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people in the world.
Born in Johannesburg in 1962, the mother of two (and soon to be grandmother) says that in her spare time she reads and writes, designs clothes and likes to experiment with some fabric. She giggles as she talks about her passion for clothes, “I like African prints and I think there is so much more we could do with it. My specific interest is ethnic modernised African prints. I am hoping that I will design a fabric soon because there is so much tapestry in African prints but we have to modernise it.
“I want us to be able to wear African prints and not worry about it being too heavy or thick to wear for certain seasons.”
Madonsela says her favourite look is the feminine formal look. “You want to look formal but also not suppress your feminism. Most of my looks and a lot of my style is inspired by Calvin Klein.”
When asked how she remains calm and feminine in an industry dominated by men, she responds, “I try to understand that every human being is doing the best they can. I offend people, including my children. When the best I know improves, my actions also improve – we collide because we come from different understandings on how life should be lived.
“We may have the same values but we might place emphasis on different values and the idea is to work together and look at the totality of values, and why emphasising one set of values at the expense of another creates exclusions and misunderstandings.”
Speaking on working with young people and having the privilege to influence young minds, Madonsela says young people should be raised to see themselves as job creators instead of jobseekers. “We need young people to grow up believing in themselves and knowing that they can impact the world,” she opines.
After standing outside for ten minutes in 37-degrees Stellenbosch heat, Madonsela’s make-up needs to be touched up and her Personal Assistant shows up with a pink makeup bag filled with everything from eyeliners to powders and foundation.
She hands over the bag while she powders her forehead and nose, and out of nowhere, a giggle comes. “You know, there are some parts of your life and things in your life that you hope people would never have to see – this bag is such a thing. I keep saying I am going to wash and change it but it just never happens and now you have seen how messy it is.”
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