JOHANNESBURG - Time magazine named South Africa’s hard-hitting ombudsman as one of the world’s 100 most influential people Thursday, providing high-profile recognition of her work investigating President Jacob Zuma as he fights for re-election.
Thuli Madonsela in March found that some of the $23 million of taxpayers’ money spent on “security upgrades” to Zuma’s private home were “unlawful” and she ordered the president to repay part of the sum. Madonsela’s findings have been at the centre of the political debate as South Africans prepare to vote in general elections on May 7, when Zuma will seek a second five-year term.
Time magazine honoured her “extraordinary courage and patriotism” in confronting corruption. “Thuli Madonsela is an inspirational example of what African public officers need to be,” Nigeria’s former central bank governor Lamido Sanusi wrote in the magazine’s commendation. “With her ability to speak truth to power and to address corruption in high places, Madonsela has been outstanding.”
The soft-spoken human rights lawyer joins other powerful and influential world figures like US President Barack Obama, Chilean leader Michelle Bachelet, Pope Francis and whistleblower Edward Snowden on the list. The accolade has made a splash as Zuma attempts to minimise the fallout from Madonsela’s investigation. The 72-year-old president recently called on Madonsela to prove her findings, pointing to a separate probe by his own ministers that absolved him of responsibility.
“It never said the president misused money. It said that there seemed to have been an inflation of prices,” Zuma reportedly told a campaign rally this week. Madonsela has pulled no punches in several other inquiries that have pointed a finger at the head of the country’s electoral commission and the opposition-run Western Cape government. Her methodological findings have restored a measure of trust in the South Africa’s much-maligned public sector.
“She has assured herself a place in the history of modern South Africa and among the tiny but growing band of African public servants giving us hope for the future of our continent,” wrote Sanusi.
The ombudsman said she was “taken by surprise that the modest efforts of her office were not only being recognised at home but elsewhere in the world too,” according to a statement on Twitter. Madonsela added that she hoped her exposure would “put the public protector or the ombudsman institution on the world map” to increase its potential as guarantor of good governance.