Thuli Madonsela became a household name for holding government to account, without fear or favour, during her seven-year tenure as Public Protector. We chatted to Thandeka Gqubule about writing the recently published biography, No Longer Whispering to Power.
I told people, ‘I’m going to write a book about Thuli’ – even before she agreed to it. A friend said, ‘Listen buddy, you’d better cool it because people are going to think you’re crazy.’ I said, ‘I don’t care.’
I get her. I know that political position and that human rights stance. I know that way of thinking. We’ve travelled the same road: like Thuli, I was in the Young Christian Students Association; I was in secret political movements; I was a student activist – so I thought, ‘Let me explain this thing. Let me step up.’
My husband [Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of Thabo] is a publisher but he doesn’t publish family. I’d never publish with him and he’d never publish with me. We were having lunch at the Hyatt, and Jeremy [Boraine] turned up. I went over to him and said, ‘Jeremy, you have to work with me. You have to give me a contract for Thuli’s book.’ He said, ‘That’s amazing! I’ve been looking for someone to do the Thuli book.’
Thuli knew I wasn’t going to write the conventional biography. I wanted to look at the underlying issues rather than her idiosyncrasies – whether she likes her tea with cream, that kind of thing. She was comfortable with it being my take on what her story says about our society, why South Africa produced a Thuli, and about her influence on the issues of the day.
We’ve known each other for many years. As young activists, we were in prison together, detained without trial at Diepkloof. I remember chatting in the quad, but I wouldn’t say we were tight. She was always reasonable, always together, always worried about securing provisions for the people she’d been arrested with. While researching the book, I was struck by how differently others I spoke to remembered prison – and Thuli – yet the stories all gelled. When I interviewed Thuli about prison, she too remembered things that weren’t dominant in my memories. She remembered songs we sang. But when she sang them, they came to me, then we’d sing together.
When you write about somebody who is written about as much as Thuli is, you already have the first draft of her history to rely on, thanks to colleagues in journalism. But explaining the phenomenon that is Thuli – knitting it together and giving it colour – that was my task. And I took it on with relish.
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