Malegapuru Makgoba and the white bonobos

William Saunderson-Meyer shines a light on the career of the new Eskom chair


Artist Andy Warhol once foretold a world where we would each enjoy 15 minutes of fame before sinking back into obscurity. In South Africa, as always, we do things differently.

Our politicians and public figures have inverted the truism. Each has 15 minutes of infamy and then, when the clucks of disapproval have died down, their lives of privilege and celebrity continue as if nothing untoward had ever happened.

Recently announced interim Eskom chair Malegapuru Makgoba’s past cannot fairly be described as infamous. But his career certainly has been controversial enough that one would expect a more lively debate about the surprise move. So far the most critical media reaction has been in a Mail&Guardian editorial that concluded gloomily: “There are 60-million people in South Africa, but we continue to recycle the same tired names into positions of influence, expecting something different.”

Makgoba has always been contentious. After all, how many previous appointments to the Eskom board boast in their autobiography that the best way to vanquish one's foes is to smear oneself daily from head to toe in lion fat, to best channel the retributive power of the ancestors? This was Makgoba’s secret weapon in 1995 against those liberal and lefty Wits University academics who dared challenge his appointment as deputy vice-chancellor, alleging maladministration, bringing the university into disrepute and exaggerations in his curriculum vitae.

And scarily potent the lion fat may have been, too. One of the group, the law dean, Etienne Mureinik — a brilliant jurist and human rights lawyer — was so affected by the vitriol and abuse stirred up during the so-called “Makgoba affair” that 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” that he would “tame”. An inquiry by an international panel exonerated the academics and Makgoba — a highly regarded Oxford-trained immunologist — resigned soon afterwards to join the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), where he soon became president.

At SAMRC one sees another side to Makgoba. He headed it during the period of President Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism, when presidential assertions that HIV drugs were a white plot to commit black genocide delayed the rollout of treatment. This led indirectly to around 350,000 needless Aids deaths, tarnishing world regard for Mbeki and his African National Congress government.

But Makgoba, although like Mbeki a strident Africanist, turned out to be one of few black voices to contradict the sycophants cheering Mbeki’s conspiratorial fantasies. And when the president tried to get him to endorse the views of the Aids dissidents he had placed on his presidential advisory panel, Makgoba was blunt that they were spouting scientific nonsense.

Mbeki and his acolytes were quick to take revenge. Makgoba was accused of being a stooge of whites, of betraying his race, and of the “character assassination” of the president. 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 seeking less adversarial pastures elsewhere. Embroidering on the primate analogies that he had made at Wits, Makgoba described white males in post-apartheid SA as “dethroned alpha-male baboons or bonobos” who should, instead of resisting transformation, “learn kwaito, dance like Lebo, dress like Madiba, and enjoy eating smiley and walkies, [the popular township dishes of sheep heads and chicken feet].”

Makgoba was variously accused of sexual harassment, victimisation and plagiarism, although never found guilty of wrongdoing. Notoriously thin-skinned, he ruthlessly went after any academic who dared criticise his management and this scorched-earth approach drew condemnation from a range of organisations, here and abroad, for stifling dissent — anything that he considered “wrong-think”.

Two academics who fell foul of Makgoba, Nithaya Chetty and Christopher Merrett, describe in their book The Struggle for the Soul of a South African University, the descent of UKZN into an authoritarian place “of heavy-handed corporate managerialism, neo-conservatism, ethnic nationalism and radical, often meaningless, rhetoric”.

“There was at UKZN a palpable desire to destroy what had existed before, regardless of its quality or functionality – the destructive ‘Zim­babwe syndrome’, which trusts that from the ashes will emerge, via some African miracle, a new institution,” they wrote.

While UKZN vice-chancellor, Makgoba enthusiastically and vocally supported Jacob Zuma’s manoeuvrings against Mbeki. Speaking at a 2008 Black Management Forum dinner, he described Mbeki as a “classic dictator of our times”, no different from former Ugandan president Idi Amin, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, former Zaire president Mobutu Sese Seko, or King Shaka Zulu. South Africans should rather support Zuma — at that stage freshly acquitted of rape but facing corruption and fraud charges — whom Makgoba rated as “one of the greatest African leaders”. 

“I can say this unashamedly, I can see no other person better suited, better groomed, better prepared than Mr Zuma to lead our country. He has the best potential for this office.

“When a Zuma presidency at a national level finally materialises, it will underscore the importance of equal opportunity in a democratic society in South Africa and symbolise a figure that represents the poor,” said Makgoba.

As Makgoba sowed, so he reaped. In 2016, Zuma appointed his vice-chancellor praise singer as the country’s first Health Ombud, a non-renewable seven-year appointment. Wonderfully, and contrary to most expectations, 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. At least 143 mental health patients had died — many following prolonged starvation, malnutrition and dehydration— after being removed from a private healthcare facility and scattered among a couple of dozen dysfunctional, unlicensed community health NGOs.

Makgoba was unsparing in his assessment of the failures of the Gauteng health department and its executives. He said that there was prima facie evidence of human rights violations and that the actions of the two top officials amounted to gross misconduct and/or incompetence, demanding disciplinary actions both at work and by the Health Professions Council.

Makgoba’s controversial career and roller-coaster reputation reflects the character one of the most complicated figures in our contemporary public life. He is SA’s very own Jekyll and Hyde: one moment vengeful and abusive, petty and naive; the next, dogged and courageous.

The rightwing Freedom Front Plus oppose the Eskom appointment but from an unusual perspective. Because Makgoba's “knowledge and talents are of immeasurable value” to the health sector, they say they fear he will be wasted and lost in the “vastly different” world of electricity generation.  

One wonders whats the good professor will make of such fulsome praise from such an unlikely quarter. Since he is not a modest man — in his autobiography, Makgoba waxes lyrical about his own “unquestioned brilliance … and pioneering achievements, with few equals … and even fewer superiors” — so perhaps he will just see this uncommon panegyric as his due.

Alternatively, he may simply view it as an evolutionary breakthrough — entirely appropriate adaptive behaviour from those dethroned alpha-male bonobos.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundiced Eye

Disclosure: For some years up to 2002, WSM was an independent media and management contractor to the then University of Natal, briefly overlapping with Makgoba’s tenure as vice-chancellor. Although he thinks of himself more as gorilla than baboon, he won’t take offence at either label.