The Star / 3 June 2013, 09:05am / Eusebius McKaiser
Johannesburg - So there I was in New York in the early noughties, on a quick biology break (which was the disguise description our posh hostess used for “toilet break”), making my way to the gents, before getting ready to hear former president Bill Clinton speak. Or was it legendary writer Toni Morrison?
As I stood in the gents doing my biological deed, I looked to my right – as we men do for no functional reason – and there, within smelling distance, was Colin Powell, a former US secretary of state, using the next urinal. I kid you not, dear reader. How shocked was moi?
That happened to me once before when I bumped into pint-sized music sensation Pharrell Williams in the badly kept gents of Oxford University’s debating society. It’s a series of elite coincidences, I assure you, and not a pattern of antisocial behaviour.
It dawned on me in New York that Mother Nature doesn’t let famous people off the hook. They too have to do terribly boring things like taking biology breaks from their terribly famous lives.
Okay, so I’m lying about my motive here. There is a reason I’m name-dropping faster than the value of the rand is dropping. Because name-dropping, if directors-general are to be believed, can open doors for you. Nay, they can even clear landing strips for you!
But who do these politicians’ minions think we are? Did they really think we would buy the comical suggestion that an abstract entity called “name-dropping” is the real evil responsible for the Guptagate scandal?
“Hi, Mr Civil Servant. I once met Bill Clinton. Please can you now waive visa requirements for me?” Oh wow, that was easy!
“Hello sisi. You know Toni Morrison nê? No? Eish… Uhm, what about Colin Powell? Ja… that angry-looking black politician in America from way back (flicks fingers)… ja that one. This one time, him and I bumped… So, can I park my jet…?” Yay!
Except, reality doesn’t quite work like that. In real bureaucracies, it’s not the mere mention of Clinton’s name or Powell’s that guarantee favourable treatment.
Context and power are everything. The official hearing the name must be scared. There has to be a real threat to not granting the favour: the possibility of being fired, or the possibility of enduring some other nasty bullying or some such. If not, why would the public servant risk his or her career and simply break laws?
The only scenario in which political principals are not implicated is when there is bribery between, say, a Gupta family member (hypothetically speaking) and a low-ranking public servant.
But given that the directors-general report in the Gupta wedding scandal itself diagnoses name-dropping as key to the wrongdoing, higher-ranking politicians are implicated in the making of the wrongdoing.
The question now is whether wrongdoing was done in their name only, or whether they are ethically and legally implicated. This is where things get both murky and interesting.
Why would the mere dropping of a name, like frightening your unsuspecting housemate while she is pouring a mug of Koffiehuis, guarantee a senior civil servant will do something wrong?
I mean, if I walk into someone’s office at Waterkloof Air Force Base, for example, and I cough, and say, ‘ZUMA!’ and then start singing, I don’t know, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!, before casually asking, “Any chance of a landing from India without papers being checked?”, why on earth would the person oblige just because I coughed an infamous name?
It makes no sense. Unless, of course, we know what happens when such name-coughing is ignored. There are consequences, right? If not, it is difficult to see why someone would so easily capitulate, risking his or her livelihood, good name and career.
Don’t be taken for a free flight, South Africans: name-dropping is a red herring here. The hypothesis of name-dropping as an explanation for the Gupta saga remains a farce. It is an invention by pressured directors-general to distract us from focusing on their political principals who wield massive amounts of power over civil servants serving at their behest.
This is not to say that directors-general, and civil servants lower down the pecking order, don’t have minds of their own. However, name-dropping can only be effective in a corruption nexus in which political principals are active participants. And yet only minions are falling here. Where are the colluding political principals?
Sometimes I think our political dramas are episodes from the English classic Not the Nine O’Clock News.
Except, of course, English satire is, well, satire. And our political drama is, sadly, our reality.
By the way, did I tell you about this one time I had dinner with Mandela and the queen at Buckingham Palace? So there I was in London in the early noughties…
* Eusebius McKaiser is author of the bestselling book A Bantu In My Bathroom, a collection of essays on race, sexuality and other uncomfortable South African topics.