Not the stuff of dental journalism

Andrew Donaldson writes on the M&G's brief foray into Zweli apologism


I BEGAN looking for a job in journalism soon after arriving in the UK. Nothing too ambitious, mind — perhaps some dash work as a down-table sub-editor, minor copy-tasting on the foreign desk of some regional rag, a bit of proof-reading maybe. All to no avail, not a single response to scores of applications.

I later met with a Zimbabwean actuary who told me that he, too, was in much the same boat. No-one in the City, it seemed, was interested in him or his excellent qualifications. In South Africa, the big counting houses just couldn’t get enough of the guy. But in the UK? Nothing doing. I wondered if this was the result of racial discrimination. He thought not, probably more a class issue. “You see,” he explained, “you and I did not go to the right schools or universities. It’s as simple as that.” 

He had a point. Nevertheless, I persisted in trying to find a job and, as it happened, was duly interviewed for a sub-editor’s position on a lowly trade publication: a magazine that specialised in modern dental technology. Of all things.

Being “foreign”, I had to do one of those patronising grammar tests to gauge ability to communicate with the native dentist readership: “Delete where applicable: ‘Johnny [is/are] a bad person. He does not brush his [teeth/tooths]. They will rot and fall [off/out]…” 

This was followed by a grilling from the editor-publisher and an HR humanoid. Why did I want this job? Did I know anything about the hi-tech requirements of the modern dental surgery? Would I be prepared to attend oral hygiene conventions, even after hours? (This stuff was no laughing matter with these people. They’d no doubt heard all the jokes before; nudge-nudgery about feeling a slight prick, etc.)

I made the short list — only to be told the position had, alas, gone to someone who, incredibly, actually had experience in the field of dental journalism. Cut his or her teeth in the game, as it were. “No hard fillings,” the HR humanoid said. That, at least, is what it sounded like on the telephone. 

This, I consoled myself, was one lucky escape. What could be more dull than editing copy for a specialist dental tech magazine? 

That was in 2019. I still don’t have a proper job in journalism, but this week I discovered that there is, in fact, an even more tedious task in the fish-wraps — and that is editing the propaganda that readers of the Mail & Guardian must endure from time to time. Consider:

“In the spirit of renewal, the question that most ANC members need to ask themselves is what kind of members and leaders they need to have moving forward. One could say that they need to have ethical members and leaders in their organisation. Being ethical means that a person has integrity, trust, fairness, transparency, respect and honesty. An ethical leader will have a set of values and principles that will be recognised by the majority of South Africans. It is very rare to find a leader who resigns when their reputation is compromised in the ANC or their name has been brought into disrepute on the basis of allegations.”

This is definitely not the stuff of dental journalism. On the contrary, what we have here is devoted to the other end of the alimentary canal, the maintenance of which is undertaken, not with any sophisticated polishing equipment, but rather blinkered devotion and the demonstratively loud smacking of pursed lips. Which may or may not surprise — the author in this case is one Rebone Tau, former member of the ANC Youth League National Task Team.

And just who is the subject of her veneration? None other than Zweli Mkhize. Tau believes the former health minister and now party presidential hopeful is a rather unusual breed of politician: he quit his job after being accused of fraud. As she wrote, this is “not common” in South African public life and “came as a shock” to many.

“We have never heard of a minister who goes on special leave because of allegations that are still at a stage at which they have not been charged or have not appeared in court. It takes a rare breed to do so and when Mkhize resigned without being charged, many of us did not believe that a minister could resign because of corruption allegations.”

This is unintentionally hilarious. But, in the interests of clarity, it should be borne in mind that Mkhize did not voluntarily “go on special leave”; he was ousted from his job by his boss, Cyril Ramaphosa. Tau is however technically correct when she suggests the rubbish does tend not to quietly bugger off but rather continues to loiter long past their sell-by dates. As an example, look no further than the disgraced former mayor of eThekwini, Zandile Gumede. 

Despite the fact that Gumede is facing fraud, racketeering and corruption charges relating to a very dodgy R320-million waste management contract that appears to have been of no benefit to anyone but herself and her fellow crony councillors, she was recently elected chair of the party’s powerful eThekwini region. 

There is the small matter of the pending court case against her and her 21 co-accused, which is set down in the Pietermaritzburg High Court from July 18 to August 21. Gumede has said she will “step aside” if convicted. This, according to one report, is in line with a deeply divisive ruling the ANC adopted at its 2017 national conference. The reality, though, is that in any normal society, a politician convicted of such serious offences would not only “step aside” from official duties, but be hauled off to prison in leg irons.

I find her confidence a little disconcerting. Gumede is sometimes referred to as a “warlord”, which is perhaps due to the gender fluidity of our times. Being an old-fashioned genderist, I prefer “bandit queen”. I worry about the safety of the witnesses for the prosecution.

The charges against Mkhize, meanwhile, are no less serious, and involve a dodgy tender — is there now any other kind? — worth R150-million supposedly to provide “communication services” for the coming National Health Insurance fiasco and the Covid pandemic. Of this amount, R40-million went to legitimate service providers, while R90-million went to organisations set up by Mkhize’s cronies and relatives, and R20-million simply vanished. TimesLive columnist Sabelo Skiti described the matter thus:

“If ever there was an example to illustrate chief justice Raymond Zondo's contention that politics and politicians are at the centre of state capture, this would be it. 

“The case was open and shut: Mkhize gets appointed health minister and approves a contract to Digital Vibes, the company of a close political aide, which soon balloons to R150m, which is siphoned from his department during a pandemic. Some of the money is traced to members of Mkhize’s family and some to people linked to his previous internal party leadership campaign.”

Incredibly, or perhaps not, Parliament’s ethics committee this month cleared Mkhize of any wrongdoing on a technicality; it ruled that the former health minister could not be held liable for his adult son, Dedani, allegedly benefiting from a contract issued by the government department that was run by his father. This was so obviously whack that a subcommittee has now been set up to review the MPs’ code of ethics.

None of this was mentioned by Tau in her Mkhize puff piece. Such omissions bothered her editors a bit, and on Sunday, two days after her piece appeared, the M&G pulled it from their website with a grovelling apology:

“This piece spoke about how Mkhize should be lauded and be mentioned among those who are ethical for resigning as a minister when his name was compromised.  

“However, the opinion piece fails to address the long list of allegations against Mkhize including how his family and friends benefitted from money meant to educate and save people’s lives during the pandemic.

“The opinion piece lauding Mkhize should never have been published. We erred. We have since taken the piece down.

“We pride ourselves on contributing to building a better South Africa. This opinion piece does not do that. We apologise for the lapse in editorial rigour in publishing this article. We have already started an internal process to ensure this kind of error does not occur again.”

The news feed is sadly littered with reports of “internal processes”. They’re everywhere. Kick over a rock and chances are good that an investigating committee of some description will scurry out in a fussy, agitated manner. But, and unlike messy root canal procedures and the bloody gouging and extractions that, oddly, are seldom mentioned in the dental tech publications, very little that is rotting and diseased is ever removed from the abscessed body politic.  

Greener pastures

Deep inside the Union Buildings, a thought occurs and, rising onto its back legs, stifles a yawn and then begs a question: these people buggering off to other countries, how many of them are clevers exactly? Government, according to a BusinessTech report, wants to change its data collection systems to get a clearer understanding of how many skilled South Africans are leaving the country. [Possible short answer: many.] 

The Department of Employment and Labour apparently believes that the emigration of such people has not been “addressed efficiently through any specific policy, and constitutes a growing problem in certain sectors”. The updated data-tracking (it says here) will provide government with “up-to-date data” on skilled expats employed abroad and, if I may put it thus, they’ll have an idea of who’s doing what out there in the wider world but not right here, right now, at home.

Just an idea, but perhaps it would be more helpful to find out why South Africans are leaving. The fact that so many do so is a source of some embarrassment. Home Affairs and StatsSA do not, for example, publish information of the number of people emigrating, and so we must instead rely on the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs for an idea of where expat Saffers now circle their wagons and hang their hats. 

According to their 2020 International Migrant Stock report, by the end of 2020, almost 915 000 South Africans were living in other countries and territories, up from about 787 000 in 2015.

A more interesting document is the 2022 World Happiness Report. Of the 146 countries surveyed, South Africa is in an underwhelming 91st place. Last year it was 76th. There’s no point in going into any further detail, is there?


In order to qualify as a bona fide sporting event, I believe an activity must satisfy three conditions: a ball or something similar is central to proceedings, two teams compete with one another using various strategies and tactics, and the spectator’s enjoyment is greatly enhanced by the consumption of beer.

It is for this reason (and I realise I may be alone here) that I do not regard tennis as a sport but rather a game. Sure, there’s a ball. And, yes, sometimes there are doubles matches, but that hardly makes for a team, does it? As for beer, well, forget it. When tennis fans go on a bender, it’s not with beer, but ice-cream. Sometimes a Pimm’s, admittedly. Maybe even two or three, but no more.

I was not surprised, therefore, that there has been such a gnashing of implants and whining about mixing “politics and sport” in response to the decision by the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club to bar Belarus and Russian players from Wimbledon this year due to their governments’ roles in the invasion of Ukraine.

The cry goes out from tennis fans: “Is it fair to punish the innocent athletes, some of whom had denounced the actions of the war pigs? Now some of the best players in the world will not be competing.” But really, who is the more innocent, and what’s more unfair? Bombing a hospital full of pregnant women or denying a few athletes the opportunity of some racquet-tossing and other brattish behaviour on Wimbledon’s centre court? 

Remember the justifications and rhetoric when South African sportsmen were sanctioned for apartheid? That is is the sort of hard-nosed attitude that is needed here. Besides which, it’s just tennis. Not really a sport.