Where’s our intelligence?
Following a crazy marathon press conference held by the loopy Hlaudi Motsoeneng recently, I kept asking myself this question: What does the fact that a raving lunatic can captivate public attention for three hours say about us as South Africans? It is baffling how he has us under his spell. Most of the country believes that if Motsoeneng passed by Sterkfontein Psychiatric Hospital – which, incidentally, is about 20km from his home – he would be seized by staff and immediately given accommodation. From there, he would be free to hold court and preach to his fellow residents to his heart’s content.
But we, the sane, still listen to his rantings in our homes and offices.
Hopefully, this will not happen for much longer as his time is almost up. He will leave behind a trail of carnage because he was given unfettered power over the public broadcaster. South Africa has paid dearly for allowing this individual to run amok. We will pay more, still.
The most obvious and quantifiable cost is the commercial damage Motsoeneng caused. What we may never be able to quantify is the long-term damage to the quality and culture of the broadcaster; to the lives of individuals; to journalism; and to South Africa’s democracy.
The Motsoeneng era is an indictment on South Africans – we allowed it to go on for so long. While we were affronted by his buffoonery and his cruel ways, we also enjoyed the freak show. The narcissism and arrogance of this imbecile made us roll around in the aisles. He made great material for social-media memes. Video clips of choice Motsoeneng quotes in his troubled English always went viral. It is no surprise that it did not bother him that he was a national joke: while others laughed, he was wielding great power and pocketing millions.
Which brings us to the question of the cost of bad decisions – a broader South African issue that the SABC is emblematic of. Motsoeneng made terrible decisions that cost the SABC billions in hard money and in lost opportunities. As SABC interim board deputy chairperson Mathatha Tsedu put it, “a lot of stupid decisions were made without applying intelligence”.
One wonders how much intelligence was applied when all this power was given to an unhinged individual.
How much intelligence was applied when Motsoeneng was catapulted to acting chief operating officer? How much intelligence did the then board chairperson, Ellen Tshabalala, and her henchmen apply when they bullied their colleagues and rammed his permanent appointment through?
How much intelligence did former communications minister Faith Muthambi apply when she intimidated Tshabalala and co into making that decision? (I know many will be cursing this lowly newspaperman for using the word ‘intelligence’ in the same sentence as that particular minister’s name, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
How much intelligence did she apply when she continuously protected him from the Public Protector, the courts, Parliament, the staff, her own ANC colleagues and anyone who wanted to hold him accountable? How much intelligence was applied by the principal who gave Muthambi the political authority to cosset Motsoeneng? (But how can you accuse that individual of possessing intelligence, I hear you ask. That, too, is for another discussion on another day.)
These questions need to be asked about many other decisions that have been made in the country when it was blindingly obvious that they were wrong. In many instances, the state has had to be whipped into line by the courts when it ignored common sense and the voice of other societal players.
This was exactly what happened around the procurement of South Africa’s nuclear energy capability. Since the process began in 2013, the government has been unwilling to pay any attention to voices opposed to nuclear power, or to those who accept the need for it but want the process to be clean and transparent.
After much stubbornness and sneaky sidestepping of rules and procedure, government this week got a dizzying punch from the courts, which set aside the “unconstitutional and unlawful” process that had been followed by the state on the proposed nuclear deal. What must have been most painful for the state was that it lost to peaceniks and greenies, those fellows at Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute.
As has become the norm now, Western Cape High Court Judge Lee Bozalek had to remind the holders of executive power about the oath they took. He told them that “the exercise of all public powers must be constitutional, comply with the principle of legality” and that these powers are subject to judicial review at the insistence of the public. The words that must ring in the heads of the politicians and bureaucrats when they restart the process is that, in exercising their power, “the obligations are owed to the citizens of this country and not to foreign governments”.
If there is anybody out there who has already taken money from Vladimir Putin’s people or a foreign entity, that message is especially for you.