Whatever happened to excellence?

The appointments by President Jacob Zuma of Mxolisi Nxasana to head the National Prosecuting Authority and Vas Soni to run the Special Investigating Unit come at a time when it seems the nation has started to grow weary of presidential appointments. Already there is a debate raging about whether the president should have the sole prerogative to appoint the National Director of Public Prosecutions, while some people simply shake their heads during announcements, before they even know who the new appointee will be. There's a reason for this. It's because in our government, we have started to lose our grip on excellence. The people who are being appointed are not as good at their jobs as we would like them to be. They are not people we look up to.

It can be hard to define what excellence is. When I was at school [that was last Millennium...right? - Ed], it meant first getting a gold star. Later, it became getting above 80% in something. It was not something that I touched very often, but I certainly knew it when I saw it. And I have a much better grasp now than I used to. It means more than just good, it means outstandingly good, better than the rest, at the top of your field, to be acknowledged as such. It is the opposite of mediocre, boring and unknown.

And in our country, considering its racialised past, the definition of excellence was always going to be contentious. In 1994, we didn't really have an objective definition that we were all comfortable with. Those who were previously advantaged would have waffled on about qualifications and institutions attended, and experience. Those who were previously disadvantaged would have looked at the role played during the struggle, the qualities of the person that would come to full fruition in the new post, the sheer ability that hadn't yet been realised.

And for a while, during the Mbeki years, that was very much the debate that raged. It was cloaked in different forms, and the lexicography of the subtext (which is a name just waiting to be used by a band) was quite complicated, but the bare bones of it was pretty much that. What was excellence, and how do we as South Africans define it when it comes to appointing people?

Since then, the entire notion of excellence has just disappeared from our national and political debate.

Remember the long and emotional debate around Zuma's nomination of Judge Mogoeng Mogoeng to the post of Chief Justice? It pretty much boiled down to whether Zuma was appointing him because he would do Zuma's bidding, or whether Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke should have got the job instead. There was a debate about whether Mogoeng was better than Moseneke, but that was it. And once the Judicial Service Commission hearing started, the only debate was about whether he could be appointed, not whether he should. In other words, there was plenty of debate around whether he was fit and proper, whether he met the qualifications needed, etc. etc. But not for a moment did anyone stop and think, and ask if he was excellent; which is a pity, because he was denied the opportunity to be judged on that score.

The same happened this last week. Taking over from Menzi Simelane at the NPA was always going to be a tough ask for anyone, but being a person not used to the wiles of our national politics is going to make it harder for Nxasana. Yet the debate has only been about whether he will fit the Constitutional Court's decision of "fit and proper". No one has even stopped to ask if he is excellent at what he does; will he be excellent as head of the NPA; is he the most excellent choice that is available to us as a nation?

This country's media classes do have a slightly Eurocentric tendency to look abroad and ask 'how are things done there?' Or not even Eurocentric … any-other-power-centric. How would Barack Obama make public his appointment of someone to a big job?

I can tell you this for free. It wouldn't be as part of some small carefully-worded statement that also includes two other appointments. It wouldn't be almost as if he were ashamed of the decision. Nope. It would be razzmatazz, and a press conference timed to the start of the hour of the news channels, with a big set-piece speech by Obama spelling out why this particular person was picked, what he thinks they will do in their job, and how it's all going to end; with the appointee next to him.

And then, crucially, there is likely to be time for questions. The decision can be interrogated immediately. The new person can be asked what their priorities are, what they want to do in the job, how they feel, how their wife/husband/partner feels about moving to D.C., the whole nine yards.

Instead, in South Africa, we get a few words in an email, with no opportunity to interrogate. And the person himself? Well, he hasn't even spoken yet, and is unlikely to for some time, with the result that the fourth estate, having loads of space to fill, will simply do their own analysis.

This happens across our society, but particularly in the big government jobs where there are political implications. It's been a long time since a judge was appointed that everyone could look to and agree that person is "excellent". The same thing happens lower down in the structure, too: when was the last time someone was appointed to the SABC who we all thought was really good in their job? Hlaudi Motsoneng is surely not the biggest broadcasting brain in the country. Riah Phiyega is surely not the best police officer (neither was Bheki Cele), Simelane is not the best lawyer, Mogoeng perhaps not the best judge ... we could go on.

When you look through that list, you can't help but wonder that if the best people, the excellent people, are not being appointed, then why were these people appointed? And the answer, which you know before you even finish this sentence (you too, Mac!) is that they are weak. They can be pushed. They will not challenge, not stand up, not oppose anything Zuma does. They will be compliant, quiet, and thus complicit, should anything go wrong. They will not object, they will not shout from the tallest mountain, they won't go to the media.

They will do what they're told. Or they won't even need to, because they will know which way the wind is blowing.

The fact is, when you look at excellent people, they are also confident … both in their ability and in their own skin. They're not wall-flowers, they're not quiescent. They stand up for themselves and they stand up for others. They know what is good, and they know what is right. And they don't put up with anything less.

Which is why, when we see excellence, we look up to it. Who in our society, in government, appointed by President Jacob Zuma, do you look up to?

Count them.

This column appeared in Daily Maverick.