Broadcaster and journalist Bongani Bingwa. File image.
Broadcaster and journalist Bongani Bingwa. File image.

B’s Bonnet: What’s in a name?

By Time of article published Sep 11, 2021

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Johannesburg - Last week, on Radio 702, a very excitable caller named Mamokgethi phoned into my breakfast show. We were talking about the challenges faced by junior employees in the public sector when it comes to challenging their bosses or offering different points of view.

Many senior government officials have long since abandoned the names of their birth or even the surnames – instead, a Pinkie Velile, may be known as DG or CEO or Chairman, depending on the actual title of her office. Even long after they have left a particular position, the title remains. Where the principal is held in high regard, the life-long subordinate might even preface it with, “My DDG”, for example.

How do you disagree with someone you address with such reverence? How do you, in a meeting of other officials, equally reverent, say he is wrong? How do you refuse instructions that are unlawful when they come with the weight of high office?

An urban tale is told about a returned-from-exile professional who answered Thabo Mbeki’s call for South Africans abroad to come home and contribute to the new democracy. She was dismissed by a cadre she had once housed overseas. After several failed attempts to secure a meeting with her former charge, she was told by his new chief of staff that his diary would probably not open for months; could she not wait? “And he is the DG – not Zwelibanzi to you!” As it turned out, she did not wait but retreated back to a successful career in corporate America.

To be fair to many senior public office bearers, they themselves are under similar pressure from their political principals. We are hearing stories from the officials who signed off on the Life Esidimeni transfers that sent mental patients to their deaths. The MEC made me do it – if I had refused, my job and career would have been on the line.

Similarly, Kabelo Lehloenya, the former chief financial officer of the Gauteng Department of Health, fingered by the Special Investigating Unit for irregular PPE procurement, says she was merely following instructions. Following the death of her colleague, Babita Deokaran, who was gunned down in her driveway and who stood in the way of what she and others were doing, Lehloenya claims to be afraid for her own life.

On whose orders was she acting illegally? She is pointing her crooked finger at no less than Gauteng Premier David Makhura. This as law enforcement has said an unnamed senior ANC figure is a person of interest in the Deokaran case. Whoever it turns out to be, you can bet they come with a serious title.

Back to my excited caller Mamokgethi. She too held a high position, she told me, but hated being referred to by her job title. She posited an interesting reason: when you fall out of favour, the very people who were once obsequious towards you soon call you by your first name, almost as if it were an insult. It becomes the ultimate declaration of their newfound contempt. Before any fall from grace or accusations, please call her Mamokgethi.

It took me a moment to realise that I was speaking to the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

But this week, Professor Mamokegthi Phakeng flew into the storm when she hosted a webinar that sought to answer what science apparently says about LGBTQA+. As could be expected, there were any number of problematic aspects of such a discussion – apart from being reductive, Phakeng spoke to a urologist who understands the clinical issues but has little knowledge of the psychosocial perspective. Her expert guest repeatedly confused biological sex and gender and justified the genital mutilation of intersex babies because, for example, Home Affairs must be told something for its birth register.

How did the principal of Africa’s leading university walk into such an obvious black hole? Does UCT not boast an advanced Gender Studies Department?

Siv Greyson a lecturer at the very institution, “a black transgender, and non-binary lesbian” was silenced in the comments section when trying to warn Phakeng not to proceed with her ill-advised idea.

Her desperate tweets fell on deaf ears: “Prof Phakeng I am anxious and scared. Us, as trans UCT employees, alumni and students, not being able to join this conversation is making me so anxious I can’t stop shaking!”

Silence.

Greyson is clear – any first year student at UCT could have told Phakeng what was wrong with the discussion.

Perhaps the next time they should just ask Mamogkethi to stop it?

***Bongani Bingwa is the host of 702 Breakfast and a Carte Blanche presenter

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