MICHAEL KGOMOTSO MASEMOLA: Mbete should’ve known better


After asking myself “is it possible to measure, in inches, what amount of either grey matter or thick skin it takes to voluntarily subject oneself to the combined brilliance and intellectual philistinism of the Oxford Union”, I mellowed down and started sympathizing with Baleka Mbete and her seemingly lacklustre showing on that fateful afternoon.

What kick-started my depression, in the midst of all this, was an article by Johnny Steinberg who was present at the Oxford Union and immediately launched a broadside against Mbete, singling her out as a sinner among villains in ANC regalia. How I wished Steinberg would take heed of the sages of the Talmud: “This is what people say: a single coin in an empty flask makes the most noise.”

Realising that Steinberg had been blinded by the scintillating halls of Oxford, to a point of overzealousness, I rationalised that Mbete’s career was made within an organisation laden with the burden of discharging its responsibilities to millions against the backdrop, nay strictures, of neoliberal capitalism.

This a system of “free” trade whose profiteering logic is based on graft: misrepresentation or under-reporting of profits by big corporate entities that mainly deal with government and, by dint of providing much-needed employment, exploit workers and the country’s resources no end.

And thus, even our SOEs shifted focus from sustainability to profitability, due to their proximity to private interests that came through different guises and promises like operational efficiency gains. Graft seeped in and overran the cups of deployed cadres that should have been beyond reproach: the private rent seekers were here too, knocking, carrying trinkets and stress relievers of all shapes and sizes.

If fudging figures is what auditing companies like KPMG has done for business viability, then the normalisation of business malpractice - best exemplified by Steinhoff - finds crystallisation in crass corruption in the private and public business spheres. Who can reign in the market forces that, by design and tariff structures, are geared towards grand theft by “investment”? Illicit flows running into trillions of rand have been conveniently ignored in the quest for the missing millions on the back of black corruption.

That is the silence that Steinberg conveniently ignores in his commentary about Mbete’s botched Al Jazeera interview. The crimes of capital appear only in the footnotes of his daily letters. With his ilk they refrain: “this is public money”, as if there are Olympics of corruption where the automatic losers are those who steal public funds. To the same degree of venality attending the Nkandla debacle, Jooste, McKinsey and KPMG stole public funds.

Still I wonder, what was Mbete thinking in the first place. In IsiZulu my grandmother would have asked “ubeyaphi?”

Mbete’s ordeal was befitting the scene of the carnivalesque orchestrated by those who are South African expatriates stationed abroad and swimming in the sea of impossible nostalgia and resentful whiteness. These are hell-bent on using platforms that set the agenda contrary to that of the liberation movement that is ‘losing its former glory’, thus finding it necessary to manage Africans and their government until the Ruperts’ and Rothschilds’ will be done. Mbete cannot, should not, speak above the ANC register, she is warned.

Look now where she finds her bathos: “ubeyaphi eyohlakazwa yisinamuva?” That scene was never going to be kind to her. But we recall, she is a child of the movement.

Mbete’s silence is therefore eloquent: it refuses to join the chorus of the soi-disant anti-corruption brigades that deliberately focus on roundly demonising the liberation movement rather than some individuals who are not representing the nomos of the liberation movement culture.

Lest we forget: it is easier to call out Mbete and Surve; far harder to highlight the moral high-ground of Jonas and many others of the self-same liberation movement that are pilloried at every turn. Paragons of virtue exist within the movement, hundreds of them actually who have consistently spoken against the rot of corruption.

The frontal attack, in front of cameras, was a spectacular attack on the brand identity of the liberation movement as a whole, and Madame Mbete refused to be complicit, at her own expense.

But still I argue, she should have known better not to enter the dragon’s den unprepared for the dragons that breathe fire.

By supercilious standards that de-emphasise the crimes of capitalism in South Africa today, Steinberg’s very loathsome description of Mbete in his missive warrants scrutiny of his motives or his grandstanding as the loudest voice in the self-styled anti-African corruption brigade that must become conspicuous by their obnoxious behaviour. I call time on the attack on the liberation movement, veiled as an interview of Mbete who must carry the cross of failed comrades and be crucified for them.

But that is par for the course. She should have known better. As one contributor to these EWN opinion pages, Busani Ngcaweni, has recorded, “the search for the devil has longed stopped. We’re in fact now searching for the devil with the longest horns...”

At the altar stands Steinberg and his disciples ready to call out the likes of Mbete when, in unguarded moments, they mistake slaughterhouses for colon cleansing boutiques.

Michael Kgomotso Masemola is professor of English literature at Unisa and author of 'Black South African Autobiography After Deleuze : Belonging and Becoming in Self-Testimony'.