Prof. Makgoba is a man of many seasons

Prof Malegapuru Makgoba launched his new book titled “Leadership for Transformation since the Dawn of South Africa's Democracy.” Picture: Jacques Naude / African News Agency (ANA)

Prof Malegapuru Makgoba launched his new book titled “Leadership for Transformation since the Dawn of South Africa's Democracy.” Picture: Jacques Naude / African News Agency (ANA)

Published Sep 22, 2023


It becomes clear from reading the book that Prof. Malegapuru Makgoba is not someone who is simply satisfied with throwing stones but is prepared to be part of the solution, writes Professor Sipho Seepe.

“Saying it like it is, or as he sees it” has become Professor Malegapuru Makgoba’s trademark. Makgoba’s recently published memoir-cum-reflections, Leadership for Transformation since the Dawn of South Africa’s Democracy: An Insider’s View is timely and bold.

In journalistic parlance, the book can be seen as a no holds barred eye-witness account of South Africa’s political transition.

It comes at a time when the country is faced with unprecedented crisis of leadership. Makgoba writes that “many South Africans are, to put it bluntly, gatvol, in despair, angry and disillusioned about the current leadership and the trajectory the country is taking… Present-day South Africa has the fingerprints of poor and greedy leadership written all over it, leading a ‘mafia’ and ‘failed state’.”

It is one of those un-put-downables – the only time one pauses is to allow the profundity of what is written to sink in. Writing is an act of courage. It is about revealing oneself. It is about taking the risks that come with it. The risk of being misrepresented. In our country some read you not with the intention to hear and understand you, but to distort and misrepresent what you have said.

The work is also about shifting the geography and biology of reason. Too often we have books written about ourselves where we end up quoting what people say about ourselves.

Makgoba’s latest instalment is bold contribution to African thought leadership. He has been bold in generating ideas that are likely to ruffle feathers. This book is bound to "comfort the disturbed, disturb the comfortable" to quote Finley Peter Dunne.

The book is also an expression of political commitment. In writing this book, Makgoba has done the country a great service. It is a form of a patriotic duty in a sense that it is embodies reflections of a person who was not simply satisfied in standing on the sidelines looking in, but someone who was prepared to soil his hands.

It becomes clear from reading the book that Makgoba is not someone who is simply satisfied with throwing stones but is prepared to be part of the solution.

To that extent, he stands apart from the usual lot whose only preoccupation is to find fault. The fact that Makgoba’s services and wise counsel was sought by all Presidents and no less than 25 cabinet Ministers is a mark of political commitment. He is and continues to be a participant in the ongoing drama of our democratic experiment. To a certain extent, this book is also autobiographical.

This is not the first time that Makgoba has ruffled the feathers. Makgoba’s first entry into the national consciousness had all the razzmatazz of a block buster. His face featured prominently in the Sunday Times as the first African to be appointed Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Witwatersrand, he became the talk of the town.

He was correctly presented as towering figure in his field. Wits had recruited a formidable scholar. Among other achievements, he is a recipient of the American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (ASHI) Travel Award 1987 for Research into lymphocyte cell-cell adhesion molecules, elected Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (London) 1990 and received the National Health Service Distinction Award, Department of Health, UK.1991.

He co-authored two of the most cited papers in Immunology in 1989 according to data from Science Citation Index. His paper on Amoebic Adherence and Adhesion molecules was awarded the Prize for the Best Basic Science Presentation at the Annual Meeting of the South African Gastroenterology Society July 1992.

The National Research Foundation President’s Lifetime Achiever Award “for having made outstanding extraordinary contribution(s) of international standard and impact to the development of science, in and for South Africa, over an extended period of time” and Le Matinel Educational Excellence Award for “Outstanding Contribution to Education”.

Barely six months after he was appointed as Deputy Vice Chancellor, Makgoba hogged the headlines again. He was lambasted for daring to state that the time for white South Africans to determine the future of this country is over.

All hell broke loose, and suddenly, his credentials, which were lauded with gay abandonment, were questioned by his colleagues – the so-called “A Gang of 13”. This triggered an unseemly squabble in the academy and the society in general.

A ferocious battle ensued. I responded by writing an opinion article titled “A pigeon among the cats”. But as history has proved, this was a case of “A cat among the pigeons”. Makgoba’s accusers have since disappeared into ignominy and infamy.

Makgoba’s cardinal sin was to have re-introduced the question that Steve Biko had dealt with regarding the so-called do-gooders. His was the struggle for intellectual independence. Indeed, it was to be expected that the process of de-colonising the education system is likely to be resisted by those who historically considered themselves intellectual masters.

Makgoba’s experience at Wits is an indication of the brutality that this struggle is likely to assume. The “Makgoba Affair”, (as Professor Makgoba’s conflict with the white liberal establishment came to be known) was arguably the most emotive, volatile, and contentious conflict, polarising the country along racial lines.

An anatomy of events suggests that Makgoba’s problems with the white establishment started when he suggested that the transformation of Wits University, and by extension all white liberal universities, would entail challenging Anglo-Saxon ways and values, values which had worked well to serve the white minority to the disadvantage of the black majority. Indeed, many scholars before had raised a similar concern.

The non-resolution of the debates has come to haunt the academy in the form of recent RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall protests by students. They have all argued in different ways that the notion of “high academic standards” cannot exist in a vacuum; that standards have to relate to the needs of society and that the process of change depends on ensuring that the new agents of change do not arrive at an accommodation with the old order; and that the African experience should be a source of ideas leading to public policy.

History will record this conflict to have been far much larger than Makgoba, Wits, and even higher education. This conflict, as former President Thabo Mbeki so eloquently puts it (see foreword of Mokoko- The Makgoba Affair)

“is representative of a specific sector in a broad front of a 'general' struggle for fundamental reconstruction of South Africa... a struggle between the new and the old, the contest between the forces and processes which seeks to conserve and its opposite, which strives to renew.”

The “Makgoba Affair” however demonstrates in a stark way that we are not about to fall victim to a benign future of cosy cooperation among South Africans who share a common vision about what change consists and who are inspired by a common determination to bring about such change.

Mbeki continues: “It was a struggle about who should set the agenda for change at the University of the Witwatersrand, what the content of that change should be, who shall, in future, exercise authority, and, consequently, what will the dominant ideology of this situation be, when it is so proud to characterise its ruling ideology as ‘liberal’.”

Those who have sought to minimise the political and national significance of this conflict have preferred to see it as only a matter of ethics and academic integrity. Referring to the machinations and shenanigans employed in the Makgoba Affair, Mbeki concludes.

“[Makgoba] had to be denied the possibility to exercise authority over the process of the transformation of the university. This had to be done in a manner which ensured that the liberal establishment did not lose, and therefore continued to enjoy, the right to set the agenda with regard to what is right and wrong in terms of what the new South Africa should seek to achieve.”

Makgoba’s book Leadership for Transformation since the Dawn of South Africa’s Democracy: An Insider’s View is more likely to court the same heated controversy.

Makgoba is scathing of all Presidents except Mandela. The book ends with his take on Ramaphosa whom he describes as a ‘process man’, coordinator par excellence, consensus builder, constitutionalist but an avoidant leader.

The notion that Ramaphosa is a constitutionalist has since been discredited by the Phala Phala farm scandal after a three-person parliamentary panel concluded that the information at its disposal discloses, prima facie evidence that Ramaphosa may have committed a serious violation of the Constitution including sections 96(2)(a), a serious violation of section 34(1) of the Prevention and Combatting of Corrupt Activities Act, serious misconduct in that the President violated section 96(2)(b) by acting in a way that is inconsistent with his office, and a serious misconduct in that the President violated section 96(2)(b) by exposing himself to a situation involving a conflict between his official responsibilities and his private business. of the Constitution.

Since then state organs have been at pains to find a way of shielding Ramaphosa from accountability.

Significantly, Makgoba found Ramaphosa to be dangerously lacking in key aspects of leadership: decisiveness, courage, conviction, and leadership.

Makgoba’s characterisation of Ramaphosa is no different from that by political and economics commentator, Moeletsi Mbeki. Mbeki had this to say.

“Cyril is not a leader really. He was never a leader. He is an agent of the party but he presents himself as a leader. If you put him next to Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and even Jacob Zuma, he is not a leader because he does not believe in anything. He goes with the flow. He wakes up in the morning and says which way is the wind blowing and I am going go that way”.

** Prof. Sipho Seepe is an independent political analyst.

*** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.