“Just as the power of water often lies in the ability to bend around obstacles, sometimes the most powerful step you can take is a step back”.
Advocate Thuli Madonsela posted this quote on her Twitter timeline just hours after last Wednesday’s release of her State of Capture report. The quote was not direct and not credited to anyone which made it more of a note-to-self than anything.
I have always had a sense of this woman’s unique ability to intuit the metaphysical and spiritual requirements of the moment beyond the physical aspects of her work as our Public Protector. Without naming it as such, I believe this is why most of us esteem her as we do. We in turn intuit the extent of her impact rather than just see, hear or feel it. Madiba elicited the same response. The fact that her response to the release of this final labour-of-love was to step back, should confirm what we may have sensed all along; that she is as much a spiritual leader as anything else. This is not a badge of honour and certainly not a mantle that I would expect her to wear comfortably, but that very fact would serve as further proof of the hypothesis.
When I say spiritual leader, I am not using this term in any kind of religious way, although that is how she – and indeed perhaps you the reader – chooses to give expression to spirituality. I am talking about a leader who “leads from the deep” as it were; from beneath the heart level; from that level of intuition that exists in those that understand that to fall is to rise; to step back at the right time is the ultimate power-move. As my favourite Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr puts it, the power of “falling upward”. Is this servant leadership? Yes, in its very purest form.
Thuli Madonsela is a person who understands what it means to lead in such a way. How can we tell this? Because in her finest hour, she knew instinctively that her most powerful response would be to step out of the limelight and into the shadows. She knew that for her work to have the maximum power and impact, she was going to need to humble herself and – without taking so much as a bow – exit stage left. This would allow the necessary processes to unfold untainted and uncluttered by her presence. The job was done.
Now, had I been her, I would have booked interviews on every radio and TV station possible. I would have made sure that the whole dang world knew how great I was. I would have got someone to sky-write “Justin For President” but pretended it was just an adoring fan. I would have planned the release of my book – entitled “Just in Time – How I saved South Africa” – to coincide with the release of this report. There would have been mugs, pens, t-shirts – the works. Now come on admit it; you would have been tempted to do the same and shore up your fame and fortune for good.
But she chose to post a quote about stepping back. Why? Firstly, she knows that we are ultimately only ever as powerful as we are humble. That is the conundrum of falling upward. The extent to which our ego is in control determines our impact for good in the world. Alas, this does not mean that ego-driven human beings will not become powerful leaders. It simply means that their legacy of positive impact is an illusion that will ultimately fade and die.
Secondly, by leading from this place of humility she will have sensed that in the days and weeks following the release of this damning report, crooks and cronies would come crawling out from under their rocks to try and discredit her. By stepping back she would give them nothing new to say. They would simply have to follow legal processes; not something that criminals like to do.
And finally, she drew a line in the sand and said, this job is now done; this fight is fought. I can now rest and prepare for the next challenge – whatever that may be.
Of course, there is also an implicit challenge in Madonsela’s above quote. It is her time to step back but where does that leave us? It is most certainly not our time to step back. As our Public Protector, she left us her legacy as well as lessons and of course tools to step forward and continue the fight for our democracy. But the battle is far from over. As Vytjie Mentor said, we are the same now as we were before the report. What can we do to ensure that South Africa emerges victorious from this battle for her soul?
I do not have 3 steps you can follow here, but I do know that our role in the process will come to each of us as we seek to lead humbly where we are and as we understand that each of us must play our part – however big or small – in the healing of our nation.
This – more than any report – is the greatest legacy that Thuli Madonsela leaves us.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.