Eskom’s board chair Prof Makgoba is a complicated figure in our public life
Opinion / 1 February 2020, 10:51am / William Saunderson-Meyer
Artist Andy Warhol once foretold a world where we would each enjoy 15 minutes of fame before sinking back into obscurity. In South Africa, our politicians and public figures have inverted the truism.
Each has 15 minutes of infamy. Then their lives of privilege and celebrity continue as if nothing untoward happened.
Recently announced interim Eskom chairman Malegapuru Makgoba’s past cannot fairly be described as infamous. But his career has been controversial enough that one would expect a lively debate about the surprise move. After all, how many previous appointees can boast they vanquished their foes by smearing themselves daily from head to toe in lion fat, so as to channel the retributive power of the ancestors?
This, said Makgoba in his autobiography, was his secret weapon against those Wits University academics who in 1995 dared challenge his appointment as deputy vice-chancellor, alleging maladministration, bringing the university into disrepute and exaggerations in his curriculum vitae.
And potent the lion fat may have been, too. One of the group, the law dean - a brilliant jurist and dedicated human rights lawyer - was so affected by the vitriol and abuse stirred up during the so-called “Makgoba affair” it was speculated to have played a role in his suicide.
Makgoba, in turn, accused his critics of racism and corruption, referring to them as “monkeys” he would “tame”. An inquiry exonerated the academics and Makgoba - a highly regarded immunologist - resigned to join the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), where he soon became president. At SAMRC one sees another side of Makgoba.
He headed it during the period of president Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism but turned out to be one of few black voices to contradict the sycophants cheering Mbeki’s conspiratorial fantasies.
Mbeki and his acolytes were quick to take revenge. Makgoba was accused of being a stooge of whites and of presidential “character assassination”. No small surprise that when the vice-chancellorship of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) became vacant in 2002, Makgoba chose to return to academia.
At UKZN, Makgoba’s undisguised antipathy to whites and Indians led to a steady exit of world-class academics. Embroidering the earlier primate analogy, he described white men as “dethroned alpha male baboons or bonobos” who should, instead of resisting transformation, “learn kwaito (and) dress like Madiba”.
Makgoba was variously accused of sexual harassment, victimisation and plagiarism, although never found guilty. Notoriously thin-skinned, he ruthlessly went after anyone who dared criticise his management, drawing condemnation from academic freedom organisations, here and abroad.
While vice-chancellor, Makgoba supported Jacob Zuma’s manoeuvrings against Mbeki. Speaking at a dinner in 2008, he described Mbeki as a “classic dictator”, no different from Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, and Shaka Zulu. In contrast, Zuma was “one of the greatest African leaders”.
In 2016, Zuma appointed his vice-chancellor praise singer as the country’s first Health Ombud. Wonderfully, Makgoba didn’t hesitate for a moment to bite the hand that fed him.
Just eight months into office, he was tasked with investigating the Life Esidimeni tragedy, in which at least 143 mental health patients had died. Makgoba was unsparing in his assessment of the failures of the Gauteng health department.
Makgoba is one of the most complicated figures in our contemporary public life. The right-wing Freedom Front Plus oppose his Eskom appointment but from an unusual perspective. Because his “knowledge and talents are of immeasurable value” to the health sector, they fear he will be lost in the “vastly different” world of electricity.
One wonders what the good professor will make of such fulsome praise from such an unlikely quarter. Since he is not known for his modesty, perhaps he will just see this as simply his due.
Or, alternatively, he may judge it entirely appropriate adaptive behaviour.
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