Last month, four Brodies trainees were honoured to spend time with Professor Thuli Madonsela, including speaking with her before the WS Society event "An Evening with Professor Thuli Madonsela". They record their impressions of her, and the event, here.

Professor Madonsela is an advocate and professor of law, currently teaching social justice at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She helped draft the constitution of South Africa (under President Nelson Mandela) and was the Public Protector of South Africa from October 2009 to October 2016, charged with holding the government to account. During this time, she investigated the spending of President Jacob Zuma and published the report requiring him to return vast sums of public money he had spent on his own home. Professor Madonsela was given a WS Society Fellowship two years ago and we were privileged to meet her.

Professor Madonsela is a softly spoken, Nelson Mandela- and Winston Churchill-quoting, social justice warrior. She has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice (even after thinking she was too old to do so) and was the first female Public Protector in South Africa. She speaks of building bridges of hope, seeing beyond what others can see. A lot of her work now revolves around teaching young people this mindset. She helps social justice ambassadors to encourage "everyday justice" – ensuring communities know about their rights, as she considers access to information to be one of the greatest human rights needs. We discussed with her a range of Scottish initiatives that might be taken up in South Africa including public health information (particularly around the Covid vaccine rollout) and the Scottish Parliament's legislation on free sanitary products.

The evening was chaired by Scotland's most senior woman judge, the Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian, and Professor Madonsela was interviewed by Internews Europe's chief executive officer, Meera Selva. The key themes of the evening were:

  • Social justice
  • Democracy
  • Anti-corruption
  • Pressure v forgiveness

Professor Madonsela first became interested in social justice (fairness between groups) when, as a child, she noticed her brother out playing while she had to work. She wanted justice for herself. Then she noticed that her mother, and then other women, were also struggling – and she wanted justice for "us". Once she realised the extent to which laws discriminated against vulnerable and other groups – those with HIV, the working class, religious people or those with disabilities – she wanted justice for all. She considers that "what is good for me must be good for the next person".

Professor Madonsela also discussed her perspectives on democracy: that democracy is a right, that governing is a skill and that leaders should seek to govern, not to rule. She emphasised the crucial importance to democracy of a strong social sector. The fruits (and burdens) of living in a democracy should be shared equitably across society and a properly governed state makes sure families are cared for. A "good" society is one that is socially just. She also emphasised the importance, given the challenges of our time, of governments governing in a way that is tailored for all. Social justice, avoiding corruption, protecting parliament and sustainability are all values that should sit at the heart of government.

Anti-corruption work has been and continues to be a focus for Professor Madonsela. Corruption costs the EU £120 billion every year and in her view erodes society's trust in the democratic process.

She supports the use of sanctions to tackle corruption in support of democracy.

The evening also involved a discussion about the role of the media in protecting democracy – with Professor Madonsela singling out the international media for praise in its covering of South Africa during the apartheid era. She expressed the view that the South African media is effective in maintaining a focus on corruption, including sustaining pressure after corruption has come to light and pushing for the implementation of penalties. Professor Madonsela would like to see the media applying similar pressure on social justice issues.

Professor Madonsela also spoke openly about the fear she experienced during her role as Public Protector in South Africa. She described feeling that she was walking alone while trying to be a non-political buffer between government and the people. She overcame that fear through her commitment to serve and shared the wise words of a friend – either go fast and go alone, or go far and go together.

To end the evening, Professor Madonsela shared her inspiring words that "If you are leading but no-one is following, you are not leading – you are just taking a walk".

A courageous woman in sequins, whose favourite film is the Gerard Butler epic "300", who has experienced the challenge and fear of taking on an entire state, Professor Madonsela was a joy to meet and an inspiration not only to young women, but to the world.


Christine O'Neill KC

Chair & Partner

Eve Gilchrist


Jemma Murtagh

Trainee Solicitor