Monday, August 18, 2014

Nepotism’s playground.

Is overt cronyism seriously eroding trust in our leadership?

A bizarre bit of irony has been playing itself out at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry into the tragic events 2 years ago. It came in the form of a much anticipated confrontation between Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and the miners’ legal representative, Advocate Dali Mpofu, who, if he had his way, would have the deputy President charged with murder for the role he played in the event as Lonmin non-executive director.

Again Marikana, and the soul searching now taking place through the Commission, has demonstrated the serious fault-lines in South Africa’s socio-economic structure. It goes some way to explain the large overrun of the Commission’s deadline and when the report is finally released, it will no doubt be voluminous in trying to cover all of these fault-lines.

Quite a number will be hidden in verbiage and seemingly nebulous banter that Commissions of this kind encourage in the absence of normal court discipline. One that sprung at me, and that understandably has received scant attention from the media in focusing on much bigger issues, was the curious private interchange that transpired between the two seemingly arch foes of Ramaphosa and Dali. To many it was simply a side issue, perhaps even trivial.

In a rather convoluted defence of his belief that his multiple roles at the time did not constitute conflicts of interest, Ramaphosa related how Dali had approached him outside of the hearing, and the question of Dali’s professional status was raised. Now I cannot profess to understand jurisprudent elitism, apart from that it sounds like a blatant oxymoron. But apparently for Dali to be adorned with silk he needs the endorsement of number 1 himself. Ramaphosa offered to nudge-nudge, wink-wink on his behalf, because, as he put it, such a status would not only be in the interests of Dali, but the legal profession, the country, the world and perhaps even the universe. (My additions.)

Dali himself was livid, at least partly by the disclosure of what he thought to be a private conversation between old pals, but more so because he believed that Ramaphosa was lying about what had actually transpired. Of course, it also detracted from his accusation that Ramaphosa exercised extreme nepotism in defending Lonmin’s interests. While the essence of that conversation now rests firmly in the domain of he-said-he-said, it no doubt took place, and shows that perhaps Dali as the champion of the downtrodden is not beyond a bit of elitism himself. At the very least, our Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande might want to take note of what elitism is about. It is not about raising the bar for a matric pass, but about self-aggrandisement and the constant search for the good opinion of others, which Maslow tells us, is the ultimate reflection of immaturity.

It may simply have been a camera “cutaway”, but immediately after Dali’s outburst, Ramaphosa was shown smiling mischievously. Perhaps smirking is a better word. But this spat was much more than good television.

In defending one stance on conflicts of interest that pervades much of our economic and political lives, Ramaphosa nonchalantly and unwittingly revealed another, perhaps much darker side – that of nepotism and cronyism. His indifference to this abomination reflects how deeply immune we have all become to its real menace. Worse still, how easily it is practiced in echelons of power.

We all experience it. We all most likely practice it. It is arguably the way of the world we live in, facilely paraded by a Deputy President in a public forum. As a journalist in an influential editorial position, I became painfully aware of how often coverage was influenced by the purveyor of the content rather than what or why. Yet, most in the media are arguably on the outskirts, caught in a maelstrom of nepotistic froth, rather than at the epicentre.

Therein lies filtered power, constantly pyramiding to represent raw vested interests that by themselves become incestuous relationships – a term that raised Ramaphosa’s extreme ire at the commission. We protest vehemently at blatant nepotism that has led to service neglect in government at all levels, and overt hypocrisy that ferments social discontent and unrest. But it is equally practiced in the private sector – from the appointment of supervisors to directors both executive and non-executive, and even CEO’s. It’s because, they argue, it is the way of the world, and it is in the shareholders’ interests to have someone close to or even at the top on the basis of who they know, rather than what they know.

At what price? When people are appointed or gain status on that basis rather than what they are capable of doing, we severely reduce our capabilities as a nation; our innovation; our efficiency; competitiveness; transactional fairness and ultimately our prosperity and national contentment. In the end, we simply don’t get the best people for the job.

It is not a subject that we can be flippant or mischievous about. The real price we pay is the destruction of trust.

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