Two Bits: In search of answers

What can we reasonably expect from our public figures? I asked myself this question while listening to former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela delivering a speech at a private function at Hilton College last week.

First, the expectation. I went there expecting to meet a formidable woman, something between Margaret Thatcher and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Because that is how she has been built up in the public mind, a woman who brooks no nonsense from anyone, from the president down (or is that the president, up?).

She ran her office for seven years without fear or favour, not shying away from naming individuals who she believed not to be acting in the interests of the Republic.

Her parting shot, the ‘State of Capture’ report accused the President and National Assembly of giving the middle finger to the constitution. Simply put, of being traitors.

That upset so many in the governing party that she was given the most damning condemnation, being accused of being ‘counter-revolutionary’. Big swear word in socialist/communist circles.

During her life in public office she was showered with accolades, not least being named by Time magazine as among the 100 most influential women in the world. That’s being put on a pedestal so high it is beyond the gaze of mere mortals.

Intellectually, she’s a rocket scientist. Four doctorates in law from Rhodes, UCT, Stellenbosch and Fort Hare and she will be taking up a law professorship at Stellenbosch next year.

Which I suppose is pretty damning in the eyes of the soc/comms, being the nerve centre of WMC and all things counter-revolutionary.

As for her taking up a life of academia, I don’t think for a moment that is the last we will see of her, not by a long chalk. But that’s in the future.

In the flesh, she is not an impressive person. She is quite small, extremely deferential and a painful public speaker.

She whispers, she wanders and doesn’t finish her sentences. In short, she is not a powerful, egotistical, openly ambitious woman with a groomed public presence.

She is simply a good advocate with a moral compass – unusual in these times – and a backbone who did the job she reasoned she had been appointed to do.

She spoke of embracing whatever comes into your life, making sense of it and trying to use that knowledge to effect change for the better in other peoples’ lives.

Addressing the question topmost in the minds of most of the audience about the future of South Africa, she said, “Is it okay to despair, or can we be hopeful? Every challenge is an opportunity for change and the world is full of opportunities – especially when we live in a country where more than half of the population are desperately poor.”

Perhaps the most interesting insight into her mind came from a remark she made about a visit to Sandton.

“I was amazed at all those high walls surrounding the houses. And I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be so much better if instead of building walls, we could be building bridges?'”

The question I came away with was, is it fair to expect one person, albeit a very bright, principled lawyer, to satisfy people’s clamour for answers about the future of our country?

Are we being fair to her, or even to ourselves, to expect her to show the way?

We did the same to Nelson Mandela, to Desmond Tutu, even to Pravin Gordhan, and many even do the same to Jacob Zuma, but what are we expecting? How can they provide answers to questions anyone would struggle to answer?

I believe the answers to our questions lie all around us. In our relationships with our families and members of our communities, in whether we go about our daily lives honestly, about giving to charity and how we relate to children and animals.

So, that much I can take from Madonsela’s speech – instead of building walls, try to build bridges. The evening wasn’t disappointing, after all.

* * *

“You know how it is in life. One door closes – that means another door opens . . .”

“Yeah, very nice, but you either fix that or I’m expecting a serious discount on that car!”

Bruce Stephenson

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