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Artist Andy Warhol foretold a world where we would each enjoy 15 minutes of fame before sinking back into obscurity. Our politicians and public figures have inverted this.
Each has 15 minutes of infamy. Then their lives of privilege continue as if nothing happened.
Interim Eskom chair Malegapuru Makgoba’s past cannot fairly be described as infamous. But it has been controversial.
After all, how many previous appointees can boast that they vanquished their foes by smearing themselves daily from head to toe in lion fat, so as to channel the power of the ancestors? This, said Makgoba in his autobiography, was his secret weapon against some 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.
Makgoba, in turn, accused his critics of racism and corruption, referring to them as “monkeys” that he would “tame”. An inquiry exonerated the academics and Makgoba – a highly regarded immunologist – resigned to join the Medical Research Council, where he soon became president.
This was during president Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism but Makgoba was 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. No small surprise that when the vice-chancellorship of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) became vacant in 2002, Makgoba returned to academia.
At UKZN, Makgoba’s antipathy to whites and Indians led to a steady exit of top academics. Embroidering the earlier primate analogy, Makgoba described white males as “dethroned alpha male baboons or bonobos” who should, instead of resisting transformation, “learn kwaito, dance like Lebo, [and] dress like Madiba.”
Makgoba was accused of sexual harassment, victimisation and plagiarism, although never found guilty.
He also backed Jacob Zuma against Mbeki. In 2008, he described Mbeki as a “classic dictator”. And Zuma was “one of the greatest African leaders”. In 2016, Zuma appointed his praise singer as our first Health Ombud. Wonderfully, Makgoba didn’t hesitate to bite the hand that fed him.
Just eight months into office, he was tasked with investigating the Life Esidimeni tragedy, in which 143 mental health patients died. Makgoba was unsparing in his assessment of the Gauteng health department’s failures.
Makgoba is one of the most complicated figures in our public life. He is SA’s very own Jekyll and Hyde: one moment vengeful and abusive, the next, dogged and courageous.
The FF+ opposed his Eskom appointment because Makgoba’s “knowledge and talents are of immeasurable value” to the health sector.
One wonders what Makgoba will make of fulsome praise from such an unlikely quarter. Since he is not known for modesty, perhaps he will just see this as his due.
Or, alternatively, he may judge it to be entirely appropriate adaptive behaviour from those dethroned alpha-male bonobos.
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