The trouble with South Africa – According to Prof Malegapuru Makgoba

First published on the Daily Maverick

by Prof Tinyiko Maluleke, Vice-Chancellor and Principal

20 September 2023

Exasperated with the coup d’états that characterised the first two decades of Nigerian democracy, the celebrated writer Chinua Achebe penned an angry little book in 1983, ‘The Trouble with Nigeria’. The first paragraph of that book is unforgettable: 

“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which is the hallmark of true leadership.”

Prof Tinyiko Maluleke, Vice-Chancellor and Principal with Prof Malegapuru Makgoba, the author of Leadership for Transformation Since the Dawn of Democracy - An Insider's View.

Twenty-nine years into the South Africa democracy, Malegapuru Makgoba has penned a similar kind of memoir, Leadership for Transformation Since the Dawn of Democracy – An Insider’s View. In the preface Makgoba suggests that “in 29 years my country went from a society of hope to a nation of shame, unhappiness, anger, and at times despair”.

Welded upon a sharply worded preface and an equally pugnacious introduction, the nine chapters of the book explode one after the other, like the spirals of energy that drive a hurricane forward. This is not a book about the trunk, the ears or the ivory of the elephant in the room. From beginning to end, this is a book about the elephant in the room, namely, what the author describes as “a deep crisis of leadership” – more precisely the crisis of “leadership for transformation – or leadership during transformation” in South Africa.

While the team role theory of British management guru Meredith Belbin is the pre-eminent analytical tool used by Makgoba to analyse the leadership styles of various political leaders and their team members, the book is not about abstract notions of leadership or team theories. It may best be characterised as a memoir written by a South African, born and bred in rural Sekhukhuneland, who, after acquiring an MBChB degree at the University of Natal and the DPhil degree in human immunogenetics at the University of Oxford, spent the past 29 years at the helm of several key South African institutions. This was after spending 15 years abroad – two in the US and 13 in the UK – where he held “contented and successful position[s] of scholarly accomplishment”.

The late Essop Pahad, the co-enforcer of Aids denialism together with the late Mantombazana ‘Manto’ Edmie Tshabalala-Msimang get the lowest ratings.

While unimpressed with “the bureaucratic layer called deputy ministers”, Makgoba particularly focuses on the leadership styles of four presidents and at least 25 ministers with and under whom he served since his return to South in August 1994. To each of the four presidents – Mbeki, Mandela, Zuma and Ramaphosa – a chapter is dedicated. In a spirited attempt to provide balanced evaluations of each political leader, Makgoba tries to give credit where he thinks credit is due. But he would not be able to conceal his pointed verdicts on each of the politicians under review, even if he tried. The narrative is riddled with unequivocal assessments, which are repeated several times in the text.

While Mbeki is dubbed “a president of transformation” and praised for his emphasis on African identity, he is called out for his Aids denialism, his policy of “quiet diplomacy” towards Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and his proclivity to political interference in the running of institutions, including science councils. Similarly, while Zuma is praised for, among other things, establishing the National Planning Commission, and for “initiating the largest antiretroviral programme in the world”, he, through his predilection for corruption, is also said to have possibly “laid the foundations of a ‘mafia state’, ‘criminal state’ or ‘failed state’”. 

Makgoba concludes that Zuma and Mbeki “wasted 19 years between them” – roughly 10 to Aids denialism and the Arms Deal, and nine to State Capture. Ramaphosa is described as the “avoidant leader”, who has failed to fulfil most if not all of the promises he made at the beginning of his presidency. Makgoba also notes that he has “kept many ministers of dubious character and integrity” in his bloated and low-quality Cabinet. 

Only Mandela, the “royal leader” and “a visionary”, comes out unscathed. 

Makgoba’s book is an important statement, if only because he has been in the engine room of the South African democracy for all of the past 29 years.

Ministers Sibusiso Bhengu, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Ben Ngubane, Kader Asmal, Naledi Pandor, Trevor Manuel and Aaron Motsoaledi are praised for their effective leadership. By way of contrast, the late Essop Pahad, the co-enforcer of Aids denialism together with the late Mantombazana “Manto” Edmie Tshabalala-Msimang get the lowest ratings by Makgoba. 

Makgoba recalls one particularly nasty episode in the early 2000s, during a heated meeting to which he was summoned by the late Tshabalala-Msimang and Pahad. In the middle of this meeting, Makgoba broke down and cried.

“I had hardly taken my seat when the dressing down and shouting began. I had ‘undermined the president and the government… I was a ‘traitor’ accused of running a vicious campaign in the British media against Minister Pahad and President Mbeki… In the heat of exchange, Pahad, now in fury and in apoplexy, said, ‘If you are so good a scientist, why do you not leave the country and find a job somewhere’.”

Makgoba’s book is an important statement, if only because he has been in the engine room of the South African democracy for all of the past 29 years. In the process, he did not only interact extensively with key role players, but played significant roles in the shaping of, among others, the higher education landscape and policy, the long-term national planning trajectory as a member and deputy chairperson, the national struggle against HIV-Aids as leader of the Medical Research Council, energy security in his role as chairperson of the Eskom Board, and as the national health ombud. 

His book contains incisive and insightful evaluations of the leadership styles and impact of several political leaders. 

And yet, while Makgoba provides rich and gripping narratives of his experiences at various institutions, he seems to neglect, somewhat, putting his own leadership roles under the Meredith Belbin microscope – as clearly, deliberately and meticulously as he does with the political leaders. Nevertheless, the ferocious contents of Makgoba ’s book are bound to hit the reader like a thunderstorm. 

Leadership for Transformation since the Dawn of South Africa's Democracy - An Insider's View by Professor Malegapuru Makgoba.

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