Having grown up poor and faced with great social injustice, advocate Thuli Madonsela learnt to stand up for herself and others at a young age.
With her strong-willed and strict father, Madonsela's path was forged through adversity and injustice that she and those around her, including her parents, endured.
She watched her father being detained and having to defend himself before the law for illegal trading so many times that she knew she wanted nothing more than to “help change the world we live in.”
The former public protector, now 55, said hardship and adversity helped shape the person she has become today.
“Back then living in a four-roomed house with small windows was considered poor, but my father later built back rooms and a garage with his savings. If you extended your home and had big windows in Soweto, you were considered to be living in a big house and you were not poor,” she laughed.
Madonsela recalls how most of her childhood neighbours lost their homes through refinancing in a bid to better their lives and homes.
“Many people in Dlamini did not understand bonds and black people were never allowed credit back then, but when bonds came, black people took up the bonds to extend their homes. When they couldn't repay, the houses were repossessed because they didn’t understand the bonds,” she said.
In 1986, after many years of watching her father going in and out of detention centres, she got a taste of what was behind the walls.
She was detained for three months for carrying around documents she had thought she was “saving from the police in case they raided the office.”
“I was on my way home from work and I had been carrying the Freedom Charter, January 8 statement and other documents. Unfortunately for me, I got stopped and searched,” she explained.
For three months, Madonsela would then have to answer “questions I did not have the answers to. I was a loner and I had been in Swaziland for so long, I did not have the information they were looking for.”
But those challenging times and detention would prove to be instrumental in her drive to fight against social inequality.
“My father wanted us to be educated at least to a level where we could get jobs as clerks, nurses or teachers. Those were the popular jobs at the time, but my passion lay elsewhere.”
Though her father had no formal schooling, he was well-versed in the field of electrical engineering - “he could fix everything electrical” - and he was able to read and write.
“My father was a labourer, he was not educated, he did not even go to grade one. He lived with his uncle and back then living with an uncle was like being Cinderella. They lived on a farm and the farmer did not allow them to go to school, they had to work. But he could read and write. He mostly read the bible,” she said.
Because of illness, he had to quit his job as a labourer. He ventured into informal trading and owned a couple of taxis.
“He was a pioneer in two business areas - spaza shops, and the taxi industry and Uber industry. That is why it saddens me that government is failing to regulate the informal trading industry because I know how people struggle to trade in that space,” she said.
Her mother, an informal trader herself, dropped out of school in Standard 6 to become a domestic worker.
“She regretted that decision for a very long time. She often told us she left school because she was adopted by missionaries who didn’t care much about clothes, so they wore the same clothes all the time.
"She would often see other ladies who worked as domestics wearing beautiful clothes and she wanted to look like them and that is why she left school,” Madonsela said.
To try to raise her family from poverty, Madonsela studied humanities for one year before she stumbled on a teaching job at Naledi High School. Soon after, she became involved in the liberation struggle.
“We would gather with people such as Teddy Mpesi and Themba Khumalo, forming groups of young people to hold political discussions. Often we would meet at Ma Sisulu’s home with Teddy for the umrhabulo sessions (political debates and strategy session).”
After Madonsela graduated with a BA in Law from the University of Swaziland, her parents were excited but could not understand why she worked as a volunteer for a trade union.
“From as young as 18 years old, I was more into liberation than money. I volunteered at Nehawu as an organiser,” she said.
Madonsela served as part of the delegation which formed Cosatu. She was also national organiser for the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) and worked for the Paper, Print and Allied Workers' Union (Pwawu).
Though suffering from a serious allergic reaction and having taken not one, but two, antihistamines, Madonsela sat with this reporter over a few glasses of juice at a cosy restaurant in Stellenbosch.
The fourth-year law student who served us took the opportunity to introduce herself and to commend the advocate for her contribution to the country.
Madonsela is sharing her expertise and experiences with aspiring legal eagles from Stellenbosch University as well as supporting work to achieve the constitutional promise of an inclusive society.
The soft-spoken advocate, who is soon to become a grandmother, smiled graciously and spoke with affection about her family.
Though she hopes to spend more time with her children, work commitments associated with her new role at Stellenbosch University mean that she will be living in the dry Western Cape for the next five years.
Madonsela raised her two children, a boy and a girl, as a single parent after being widowed when the children were very young.
“I will go home at least one week a month," she said. "My children and my partner are all in Johannesburg. Perhaps I will bring back water every time I go home,” she jokes.
Madonsela has taken up the position of chair of Social Justice in the Law faculty at Stellenbosch University.
The role includes some teaching but is primarily a platform for addressing contemporary social inequalities.
"It is about legal and policy design, policy that does not perpetuate inequalities,” she said.
Her new position was first announced by the university last October. Her appointment was followed by a tweet that did the rounds in January announcing that “Stellenbosch University welcomes Advocate Thuli Madonsela, who started today at our faculty of Law.”
Madonsela’s seven-year term as public protector ended in October 2016, when she handed over the reigns to Busisiwe Mkhwebane after the Nkandla case.
She considers the Nkandla corruption case to be one of her defining moments as public protector.
Speaking about the up-and-coming State of the Nation Address (SONA), Madonsela said she hoped to hear a message of hope, a message that realises the injustices of the past rather than messages that encourage racial divisions.
Madonsela is optimistic. She believes that things are moving in the right direction in the country and that people’s potential will be recognised.