Professor Malegapuru Makgoba is known for his candid and unfiltered approach to expressing his views. His recently published book, Leadership for Transformation since the Dawn of South Africa’s Democracy: An Insider’s View, is timely and courageous. It is an uncompromising firsthand narrative of South Africa’s political transition.

By Professor Sipho P. Seepe

Professor Malegapuru Makgoba’s book, – a memoir-cum-reflections – Leadership for Transformation since the Dawn of South Africa’s Democracy: An Insider’s View, comes at a time when the country is facing an unprecedented leadership crisis.

Makgoba writes: “Many South Africans are, to put it bluntly, gatvol, in despair, angry and disillusioned about the current leadership and the trajectory the country is taking… Present-day South Africa has the fingerprints of poor and greedy leadership written all over it, leading a ‘mafia’ and ‘failed state’.”

It is un-put-downable – the only time one pauses is to allow the profundity of what is written to sink in. Writing is an act of courage. It is about revealing oneself. It is about taking the risks that come with it…the risk of being misrepresented. In our country, some read you not to understand but to distort and misrepresent what you have said.

The work is also about shifting the geography and biology of reason. Too often, we have books written about us where we end up quoting what people say about us.

Makgoba’s latest instalment is a bold contribution to African thought leadership. He has been bold in generating ideas that are likely to ruffle feathers. This book is bound to “comfort the disturbed, disturb the comfortable” to quote Finley Peter Dunne.

The book is also an expression of political commitment. In writing this book, Makgoba has done the country a great service. It is a form of patriotic duty in the sense that it embodies reflections of a person who was not simply satisfied in standing on the sidelines looking in, but someone who was prepared to soil his hands.

It becomes clear from reading the book that Makgoba is not someone who is simply satisfied with throwing stones but is prepared to be part of the solution. To that extent, he stands apart from the usual lot whose only preoccupation is to find fault. The fact that Makgoba’s services and wise counsel were sought by all presidents and no less than twenty-five cabinet Ministers is a mark of political commitment. He is and continues to be a participant in the ongoing drama of our democratic experiment.

This is not the first time that Makgoba has ruffled the feathers. Makgoba’s first entry into the national consciousness had all the razzmatazz of a blockbuster. His face featured prominently in the Sunday Times. As the first African to be appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Witwatersrand, he became the talk of town. He was correctly presented as a towering figure in his field. Wits had recruited a formidable scholar.

Barely six months after he was appointed as Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Makgoba hogged the headlines again. He was lambasted for daring to state that the time for white South Africans to determine the future of this country was over. As we know, all hell broke loose. Suddenly his credentials, which were lauded with gay abandonment, were questioned by his colleagues – the so-called “A Gang of 13”. This triggered an unseemly squabble in the academy and the society in general.

A ferocious battle ensued. I responded by writing an opinion article titled “A pigeon among the cats”. But as history has proved, this was a case of “A cat among the pigeons”. Professor Makgoba’s accusers have since disappeared into ignominy and infamy.

Makgoba’s cardinal sin was to have re-introduced the question that Steve Biko had dealt with regarding the so-called do-gooders. His was the struggle for intellectual independence. Indeed, it was to be expected that the process of de-colonizing the education system is likely to be resisted by those who historically considered themselves intellectual masters.

Professor Makgoba’s experience at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) is an indication of the brutality that this struggle is likely to assume. The “Makgoba Affair”, (as Professor Makgoba’s conflict with the white liberal establishment came to be known) was arguably the most emotive, volatile, and contentious conflict, polarising the country along racial lines.

Anatomy of events suggests that Professor Makgoba’s problems with the white establishment started when he suggested that the transformation of Wits University, and by extension all white liberal universities, would entail challenging Anglo-Saxon ways and values, values which had worked well to serve the white minority to the disadvantage of the black majority. Indeed, many scholars before had raised a similar concern. 

The non-resolution of the debates has come to haunt the academy in the form of recent RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall protests by students. They have all argued in different ways that the notion of “high academic standards” cannot exist in a vacuum; that standards have to relate to the needs of society and that the process of change depends on ensuring that the new agents of change do not arrive at an accommodation with the old order; and that the African experience should be a source of ideas leading to public policy.

History will record this conflict to have been far much larger than Makgoba, Wits, and even higher education. This conflict, as President Thabo Mbeki so eloquently puts it (see foreword of Mokoko – The Makgoba Affair): “is representative of a specific sector in a broad front of a ‘general’ struggle for a fundamental reconstruction of South Africa… a struggle between the new and the old, the contest between the forces and processes which seeks to conserve and its opposite, which strives to renew.”

Amplifying its political significance President Mbeki continues: “The Makgoba Affair however demonstrates in a stark way that we are not about to fall victim to a benign future of cozy cooperation among South Africans who share a common vision about what change consists of and who are inspired by a common determination to bring about such change.”

Makgoba’s book, An Insider’s View, is more likely to court the same heated controversy. Makgoba has decided to go where angels fear to tread by tackling the Indian question. He writes that Indians “have a chameleon identity. This dilemma of confused identity is used by some Indians to suit certain situations. Others even exploit their chameleon status entrepreneurially.

In some situations, they are Indian, while in others they prefer to be labelled as ‘African’, ‘black’, or simply comrades of the liberation struggle. It is this struggle identity and comrade label that hides the deep-seated discrimination, the oppression they mete out upon their largely Zulu compatriots.”

Makgoba is scathing of all Presidents except President Mandela. The book ends with his take on Ramaphosa whom he describes as a ‘process man’, coordinator par excellence, consensus builder, constitutionalist but an avoidant leader. The notion that Ramaphosa is a constitutionalist has since been discredited by the Phala Phala farm scandal after a three-person panel concluded that the information at its disposal discloses, prima facie that Ramaphosa may committed a serious violation of sections 96(2)(a), a serious violation of section 34(1) of PRECCA, serious misconduct in that the President violated section 96(2)(b) by acting in a way that is inconsistent with his office, and serious misconduct in that the President violated section 96(2)(b) by exposing himself to a situation involving a conflict between his official responsibilities and his private business. Since then, state organs have been at pains to find a way of shielding Ramaphosa from accountability.

Significantly, Makgoba found Ramaphosa to be dangerously lacking in key aspects of leadership: decisiveness, courage, conviction, and leadership. Makgoba’s characterisation of Ramaphosa is no different from that of political and economics commentator, Moeletsi Mbeki.

Mbeki had this to say: “Cyril is not a leader really. He was never a leader. He is an agent of the party, but he presents himself as a leader. If you put him next to Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, and even Jacob Zuma, he is not a leader because he does not believe in anything. He goes with the flow. He wakes up in the morning and says which way is the wind blowing and I am going go that way”.

Professor Sipho P. Seepe is a Higher Education Specialist & Strategy Consultant

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