DURBAN, South Africa – In her role as South Africa’s public protector, Thuli Madonsela was tasked with bringing justice to ordinary people. But after challenging former South African President Jacob Zuma over his illegal use of government funds, Madonsela found herself caught in a deepening web of corruption and political scandal that rocked the nation and threatened her life. Varietysat down with human rights specialist turned filmmaker Shameela Seedat at the Durban Int’l. Film Festival to talk about her debut feature documentary, “Whispering Truth to Power,” and what the legacy of Madonsela’s fight for justice means for South Africa.

Variety: It’s hard to imagine someone in the role of public protector becoming a celebrity, but there was a period in Thuli Madonsela’s career, which you capture in “Whispering Truth to Power,” when her name and face were as recognizable as any in South Africa. At what point in her crusade against corruption did you decide you wanted to make this movie, and why?

Seedat: I had seen Madonsela speaking at law conferences since 2010, but she really caught my attention as an intriguing film subject when we all got to witness first-hand (on TV and in the newspapers) her calm and quiet determination in insisting that the president pay back public money unlawfully spent—despite a huge backlash. Whether you agreed with her or not, here was a determined and idealistic public office-bearer who was acting in concrete ways to back it up.

And so I was curious to get to know more about this black woman who was so boldly confronting abuse of power at the highest levels (and confronting former comrades), and who was seen as a game-changer for accountability and governance.
At the same time, for all her bold moves and determination, she was also attracting controversy and making some enemies. It seemed that the story of Madonsela, her office, and her children would further reveal critical fault lines in South Africa twenty-three years after democracy: Around continuing economic inequality that is still largely based on race, on the lack of redress for past wrongs, on racism, and what is muddying the collective fight against corruption, which I was keen to explore further.

The movie follows Thuli over the course of what turns out to be one of the most turbulent years for South Africa in recent memory, with the Nkandla scandal, the #FeesMustFall protests, the opening chapter of the Guptagate saga. Yet through it all, Thuli is a calm, unflappable presence. Do you think a big part of her appeal was how stolid she remained during such an uncertain time for the country?

During my research, I was struck by how her close colleagues constantly spoke about her calmness even when there was a storm brewing inside her, and seemed to admire what they saw as her unique ability to maintain her composure and hold on to her emotions when she was under attack. This is probably the main reason why she was such a successful public protector.

My personal impression is that there is fire inside Thuli Madonsela: she is willing to think out of the box, to say what is unpopular, and will fight for what she sees as the truth, but on the outside she has reached a level of maturity that allows her to maintain her calm and Zen.
And during such turbulent times as we have witnessed in South Africa, I think that a large part of her appeal was that she calmly and steadfastly kept a line open to South Africans, constantly reminding them that the fight for public accountability is a worthwhile one and that there should be concrete results. As elsewhere in the world in times of trouble, people are looking for someone they believe in—someone in public position who either shares their views, or who stands by what she or he says. In the context of what was happening in South Africa, she stood out as a beacon of non-doublespeak, non-conformism, non-backing down.

There is also a lot of machismo amongst political leaders. Her approach is different, and her quiet determination, persistence, and unwavering belief in ethics certainly helped propel her success. It is quite a feat that in such a male-dominated governance environment, she came to be seen as a leader, and was respected for her alternative – and what both she and I would consider feminist – approach by so many people.

When the ANC begins targeting Thuli, and public opinion first starts to shift against her, she says, “These are people I once called comrades.” Yet by the end of the film, she seems convinced that “when the dust has settled,” she’ll be vindicated, and the public will agree with what she tried to achieve. Over the period of making this film, did you ever see her confidence waver? For someone who was herself an exiled freedom fighter during apartheid, did you get the sense that her comrades’ betrayal cut deep?

I do feel that the vitriolic attacks from former comrades (some of whom also accused her of seeking attention for personal gain) caused her much pain. At times during the Nkandla saga she appeared wounded and vulnerable, and I know that the death threats, for example, badly affected her children, especially [her daughter] Wenzi. And during my interviews with her around the time of the state capture investigation, she also seemed distressed and at times cynical about people’s motivations. Her exhaustion, vulnerability and woundedness are there to see—but at the same time even her willingness to display these reveal extraordinary inner strength and determination.
So, I can’t say that I saw her confidence altered, because she was able to tap into a deep inner strength and remained completely driven to fulfill her quest for the truth, no matter how trying the circumstances were. Her son Wantu told me that he feels his mother has “reached her Zen in this job,” because she believes that she is applying the constitution towards the greater good and she is not acting with malice towards any particular person. “This gives her freedom and the pleasure of being safe.”

This is a deeply South African story, but one that feels very much in line with this current historical moment around the world—not only in Thuli’s battles against a corrupt ruling system, but in the fact that she’s fighting that battle as a black woman. Do you think the story of Thuli Madonsela will have a particular resonance for global audiences?

All around the world, people have lost faith in the ability of the democratic system to effectively represent them and are looking for trustworthy, confident, and smart people to serve in office.

I am always surprised at how passionately people, in other countries where we have shown the film, have engaged with Madonsela. They are immediately drawn to her leadership qualities, and encouraged by her courage and resilience. In Canada and Australia, where we recently showed the film, many people said that they would love to bring her to their governments to teach them a lesson or two! Viewers from the U.S., in particular, commented on how unusual it was, during this time of unprecedented political cynicism, to see someone actually doing what she really believes in.
Madonsela stands out as a trustworthy leader. Being a black woman in a male-dominated environment is particularly difficult—her colleagues often remarked that she was at first expected to be meek and mild, and that they witnessed first-hand how she took people by surprise because she always stood up for her beliefs.

Toward the end of the movie, Thuli’s daughter Wenzi observes, “We’ve become a nation that doesn’t know how to dream anymore.” But in the epilogue, we see that some form of justice has been served since her departure, with the resignation of President Jacob Zuma earlier this year. Do you think this post-Zuma moment is offering South Africans a chance to dream again, and that – in Thuli’s words – they can again “use the state as an instrument of healing…[and] of uniting the nation”?

During the Zuma administration, the main focus of many activists and civil society groups seemed to be fighting corruption and state capture. Corruption of course does not disappear overnight, and we still have to remain vigilant in fighting it—and many of Zuma’s close allies have significant positions in the new [Cyril] Ramaphosa government. Some argue that whatever he will do in his much-touted plan of targeting corruption will always have to be much compromised.

But what is promising now is that we can spend more energy on other critical issues, such as how to make our country fairer and more economically equal, since inequality, especially arising from an unjust past, can be viewed as a form of corruption itself. White minority rule has left serious problems today that our business and government elites have not properly addressed—and the fees must fall movement, for one, has highlighted the fact that we really do have to deal with the effects of it much more urgently and effectively. We’ve also seen how economic gaps between racial groups in South Africa have grown larger and harsher over the past years. With so many black people relegated to the margins of the economy, there’s a lot of pain and anger in our conversations.
If we – and our elites – carry on with the important conversation and do the hard work to sort out these urgent issues, then there is hope. Success, I think, will come from people seeing results and then building trust in the state and in each other. Ramaphosa is often accused of not caring enough for the poor, and his position in the Marikana massacre [which claimed 34 mineworkers’ lives in 2012] is often cited by those opposing him. It would be interesting to see how well South Africa’s poor will fare under him as a key supporter of big business, in comparison to how they fared given the way corruption under Zuma also exacerbated inequality. Personally, I am guardedly hopeful.