Public Protector Thuli Madonsela says she tries to take the soft approach to life. Photo: Dumisani Sibeko

WINSTON Churchill uttered these wise words: “To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”

South Africa’s public protector advocate Thuli Madonsela felt that tap on her shoulder and she was prepared and qualified for her special moment. Most would agree with this statement, including the global community, as demonstrated by Time Magazine’s recognition of her as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world.

On the CliffCentral Leadership Platform on Monday, she was hesitant to accept that being public protector was indeed her finest hour: “I am too young for a finest hour, because when you have had your finest hour everything after that is downhill.”

She added: “So I want to believe I am still growing in service to humanity, from strength to strength, and all I’m called upon is to do my best in every situation I am confronted with, and to learn from one situation to another.”

She felt more comfortable with a belief that people could have more than one finest hour and that one’s attitude should rather be one of “making every hour, every moment, every challenge your finest hour.”

She was even cautious in referring to herself as a leader: “I am not someone who claims to be a leader, because for me leadership, like being a lady, when you have to say you are one, there are questions about whether you really are one.”

She believes “it is up to society and possibly history to decide if you were a leader or not”.

Some wrongfully compare her with Margaret Thatcher, the iron lady, about which she comments: “As much as I admire the late Margaret Thatcher, I don’t think there is iron in the way I do things.”

In general she tries to “take the soft approach to life”, driven by two values of “fairness and compassion” she explains. Madonsela attempts to activate these values by placing herself in the shoes of those she is called upon to judge.

While she may not be convinced that this is her finest hour, that she is a leader or even an iron lady, quiet confidence, meekness and healthy steel seem to define her. And for this kind of character to surface so clearly under immense public scrutiny and political pressure from the highest levels in the country, should not be taken for granted.

There has to be an authentic moral compass guiding her life and she must have steel in her. Perhaps it is indeed her innate belief in fairness and compassion, which stems from her Christian upbringing and values taught by her parents.

But so many leaders in positions of influence and power claim to have had her upbringing, and would even assert that they are guided by the same principles and values. Yet, few that make such claims project her character and poise.

Where does she fit in the greater scheme of things, the evolution of our relatively young democracy, because South Africans from all quarters support and gravitate towards her. She seems to fill some void and symbolise more than expected from a public protector.

South Africa experienced a miraculous revolution and ultimate political transformation in the 1990s. Since then we have attempted an economic transformation, which, depending on who one talks to, has not delivered on expectations.

While Nelson Mandela is our undisputed leadership symbol for political transformation, no one has emerged as the leadership symbol for economic transformation, though characters like Julius Malema are aggressively positioning for this and with the benefit of hindsight some may want to bestow this title on former president Thabo Mbeki.

But here is our challenge: as we discover which direction our economic transformation should go, and who is going to be its rightful leadership symbol, it can be easily missed that we are also in the middle of – perhaps more importantly – a moral transformation; a struggle for consensus on what morals and values we espouse, with congruent behaviours. This is the void that South Africans want filled.

And so it happens that destiny and timing may be colliding, as it did for Mandela. Our public protector happened to take heed to that tap on the shoulder while our nation hungers for moral leadership. This hunger was clearly demonstrated by the nationwide reaction to Pallo Jordan’s recent moral approach to his immoral act of deceit, when he simply took accountability for his wrongdoing.

The essence of Madonsela’s job is to enforce accountability. And this is one of the reasons why South Africans feel such affinity towards the public protector. At the risk of placing even more pressure on her shoulders, she is quite possibly the strongest candidate for the title of leadership symbol for our moral transformation.

Her response to this suggestion was to kindly dismiss it and refer to Madiba as our moral symbol: “I would say that it’s a dangerous thing to pick on somebody who is at the starting point of exercising authority within a leadership position. You never know what the future would say about them. Madiba was tested in prison, as president and later outside of power.”

Madonsela’s current personal and leadership challenge is Nkandla. Yet again she navigates her way through it by consciously falling back on her values: “The starting point is to forgive others, knowing that they are doing their best and perhaps, as Lincoln once said you would do the same if you were in their shoes, with the information and social skills they have.”

She also draws her strength from her spirituality: “I am a deeply spiritual person”, she says. And, at all times she tries not to react, but to respond.

She explained that what has made this incident so challenging is that “it has been the most irrational in terms of human beings responding to things you would have thought speak for themselves”.

Madonsela made it clear that President Jacob Zuma had never attacked her or her office, but “it’s people who claim to defend him that are doing irrational things. The extraordinary measures to attack me as a person are very difficult to understand.”

Is this Madonsela’s finest hour or special moment, or at least one of many to come? The intensity of opposition to what one is doing is often a sign of just how “fine” one’s hour is – more intensity equals a “finer” hour. Another indicator is that a finest hour more often than not comes to one disguised as a worst hour. As Madonsela explains: “When we are at our weakest we could also be at our strongest.”

Madonsela is experiencing extraordinary opposition and admittedly from a personal point of view the current Nkandla debacle has been her most difficult situation. She is without a doubt in one of her finest hours.

Who knows what her next “special thing” is going to be. One can only hope that her positive influence finds its way into the political domain of South African politics, because we urgently need a transformation that embraces clarity of morals and values with matched behaviours.

Adriaan Groenewald (@Adriaan_LP), is the managing director and co-founder of Leadership Platform ( Tune into his show on every Monday 12 to 1pm (@LeadershipPform).