Mondli Makhanya: Value good South Africans
This is not meant to be an ode to an individual, but, rather, a lament about how we abuse and cast off some of the finest among us.
The person I am referring to is a man I interacted with and observed in my journalistic endeavours, but not someone I can claim to have shared barrels of Scotland’s finest with.
Let’s begin the story in the late 1990s.
Telkom was searching for a new chief executive to take the helm of this parastatal that was a key part of the government developmental agenda and of South Africa’s increased integration into the global community. While the comrades in the governing ANC were still scratching their heads about which capable cadre to deploy to such a position, an application with an impressive CV arrived at Telkom through formal channels from one Sizwe Nxasana. Although quite low-key, he was a pioneering auditor in the pre-1994 years, having established his own audit firm and then later co-founded what was to become SizweNtsalubaGobodo.
Nxasana had submitted his application after bowing to persuasion to respond to a Sunday newspaper advert and actually fancying the challenge that was posed by the job. With little political connections to speak of, he sailed through the appointment process and gave the powers that be no chance but to appoint him.
Thus was the career of one of South Africa’s most successful corporate captains kick-started. His seven years at the helm of Telkom and 10 years in charge of FirstRand speak for themselves.
But it is also outside of the corporate space that Nxasana has shone. Passionate about education, Nxasana has immersed himself in projects and initiatives aimed at fixing the system and making sure that quality tuition does not reach only those with silver spoons in their bodily composition. The physical and intellectual energy he has poured into education are as legendary as his corporate boardroom efforts. “A good South African” would be an apt description of him.
So, it was with a sad headshake and a sense of exasperation that this lowly newspaperman watched Nxasana being hounded out of the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas), the tertiary education fund he had chaired since 2015.
As is the fashion in the uncouth politics of our time, Nxasana’s arrival was not greeted with high-fives and whoopees. Because he had been a corporate captain, he was necessarily one of those blacks who had gulped the white monopoly capital Kool-Aid and had to be treated with suspicion.
The then president of the SA Students Congress, Ntuthuko Makhombothi, said at the time that although his skills set was what Nsfas needed, “we are, however, wary that Mr Nxasana is a banker. Banks are well known for their anti-transformation agenda and are only concerned with profiteering.”
The next two years – in which he was supposed to miraculously fix the already comatose organisation – were to prove rough. His innovative Ikusasa programme, which was targeted at “missing middle” students whose household income was too high to qualify for Nsfas but too low to afford university fees, was shot down before it even took off.
The rationale for the opposition was that its reliance on raising money from private sector instruments such as skills levies, financial institutions, retirement funds and social impact bonds – in addition to government funding – amounted to “privatisation” of higher education funding.
During the #FeesMustFall period, Nxasana was portrayed in some quarters as one of the enemies of the free tertiary education movement.
Nxasana was eventually run out of town last week as fire and brimstone rained down on him. The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), which had been at the forefront of the pitchfork brigade, was jubilant. The resignation, Nehawu said, was a “necessary step towards fixing Nsfas and helping it avoid being plunged into a further crisis of collapsing the scheme by those with no interest in serving poor students and the working class at large”.
Now Nxasana is just one of many good South Africans who get hounded out of institutions, state- owned entities and government departments, despite them just wanting to serve. Sometimes the reason for this is that they get in the way of those with an insatiable desire to loot and feed from the trough.
At other times, it is because they are not of the right ideological cloth. A lot of the time it is that people have an aversion to systems and order, not necessarily because they want to steal but because they do not want to be made to work. A good leader is therefore the last thing they want.
We should, however, not be surprised that we are where we are. It is a consequence of the culture of anti-rules, anti-thinking, anti-facts, anti-ethics and anti-work ethic that has taken root in South Africa over the past decade or so.
And this is not about blaming one man. We should all take responsibility for allowing the country to be taken down this dusty and rocky road.
If we are to achieve the objective of having a capable state and a functioning societal ecosystem that betters the life of citizens, we cannot be letting good South Africans be defeated by the pitchfork armies.