Last week the international anti-corruption body Transparency International (TI) awarded its annual Integrity Award to Thuli Madonsela, South Africa’s Public Protector. The Berlin-based organization is best known for its yearly Corruption Perceptions Index ranking levels of corruption in each of the world’s countries. Since 2000, TI has also presented its Integrity Award to “recognise the courage and determination of the many individuals and organisations confronting corruption around the world, often at great personal risk.”1

Ms. Madonsela is a particularly fitting recipient of the award, not because of any reported risk to her personal safety, but due to the dogged determination with which she has pursued a politically sensitive investigation of President Jacob Zuma, and the denunciations and personal attacks on her character from many of the president’s supporters she has endured as a result.

South Africa’s Public Protector is an office established by the country’s 1996 post-apartheid Constitution which, from the strength of the independent judiciary it established to the rights it enshrined for members of the LGBT community and other minorities, was recognized then and still is today as one of the world’s most progressive national constitutions. The robust independent mandate it created for the Public Protector, charged with investigating corruption or other public wrongdoing in any level of government, was also groundbreaking among African nations.

Ms. Madonsela, an attorney active in the African National Congress (ANC) during the apartheid era, was among the advisors to President Nelson Mandela who helped draft the Constitution. After several more years of service in positions where she helped draw up and implement public governance and legal system reforms, President Zuma appointed her to a seven-year term as Public Protector in 2009.

In keeping with the position’s constitutional role as a public ombudsman and investigator sheltered from interference from the political branches of government, Ms. Madonsela has, as detailed in TI’s Integrity Award announcement, actively pursued investigations of corruption in a variety of public bodies across all levels of South African government. But in the past year her ability to pursue her important independent work on behalf of the South African public has been severely tested by the high-profile Nkandla investigation involving President Zuma. That inquiry centered on the alleged misspending of 246 million Rand (roughly $22 million) on improvements to the President’s private residence in Nkandla.

In March of this year, Ms. Madonsela issued a 447-page report detailing her findings on the Nkandla matter and recommending President Zuma reimburse the state for large portions of the expenditures – as well as publicly apologize. The President has declined to do either. Moreover, Ms. Madonsela’s efforts earned her not only a brick wall of resistance among the President’s allies in Parliament, but false personal attacks that she is intent on smearing South Africa’s reputation abroad or even that she’s a foreign agent doing the bidding of the CIA. Yet she has persisted in her investigation, and in so doing is well-deserving of TI’s prestigious recognition.

In her acceptance of the Integrity Award, Ms. Madonsela dwelt not on the unfair blowback she has endured amongst politicians in her country, but instead gave credit to her team at the Public Protectorate as well as to the commitment of the South African nation, as embodied in its Constitution, to supporting a strong and independent watchdog to safeguard the public interest.