Former University of Johannesburg research librarian Chris Kanyane writes that state capture whistleblower Themba Maseko's book For My Country, serves as inspiration to other public servants.
For My Country is the story of a young man determined to walk the straight and narrow path of truthfulness, honesty and integrity. The values of truthfulness, honesty and integrity matter are at the heart of human progress. I knew Themba Maseko within the public service. He is a simple man, deeply intellectual and not one to run away from enforcing the rules. But he was constantly probing. He was not only probing, he was also arranging, coordinating, working round the clock. As the number one aide and envoy of Cabinet, he constantly preoccupied himself with how to make the country work for all, especially for the disadvantaged and the downtrodden.
He also took his role as a government spokesperson very seriously, always insisting that a core part of his job was to ensure that South Africans had a rounded view of government business.
He was a workhorse who approached his brief with near missionary and clear patriotic zeal. A good man, finding himself in a cobweb of corruption at the same time when South Africans were gasping for breath in harsh economic conditions - what must he do?
This book is fascinating and point blank in its honest narration of the pervasive and predatory nature of the South African state that led to the establishment of the presidential commission on state capture, led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.
A government without rules
Maseko's love for this country is not in doubt but his pain, our pain and the pain of all patriotic South Africans is in the promise of a great nation unrealised. He narrates a government which he was at the centre of, and saw it all; he saw a government that had become a game, played without rules, without order and without consequences: No warning, no yellow cards and no red cards!
Unfortunately, this game had huge consequences for society: no development; no jobs and unemployment shooting up to the roof; insecurity; millions of out-of-school children; ethical decadence; hospitals stripped of equipment and as a result, many deaths were the only guarantees; school buildings in such dismal shape with depilated classrooms; urban shanties surrounded by clogged, brackish gutters and shack dwellings that became the major urban development, a collapsed train railway system and overall, a stagnated country.
Maseko writes effortlessly and fearlessly with an effusion of passion and honesty on what is wrong with our country and what we need to do to fix it.
At present, South Africa is bleeding from a million cuts. But the grievous cut, the jarred wound that cut deep is corruption. There is no sense of shame. No sense of moral revulsion. No more decency and boundary as to what is acceptable and permissible anymore. The leaders seem to practise the politics of the self, the politics of "I, me and myself" and let the devil take care of the rest. Thuggery and rascality are shamelessly rewarded.
The transition from freedom fighter to democracy
The dawn of democratic governance in South Africa from apartheid minority rule was full of exuberance; hope. The country was alive with hope. The ANC was the hope: A better life for all. Alas, the opposite has happened. And so we moved from hope to heartbreak.
I had just finished reading the useful book Where Others Wavered when For My Country came off the press. Where Others Wavered is the story of Sam Nujoma, the former African freedom fighter who later became the president of Namibia. Nujoma catalogues the manner, paths and dittoes that he went through but through it all, he never wavered from his principles of humanity and dedication to serve his people.
In the same way, Maseko was a freedom fighter who fought apartheid in South Africa and in the processes was arrested, beaten and tortured. He was the secretary-general of the Azanian Student Organisation in the footsteps of Steve Biko. In that role, as a young university student, he moved across the world, mobilising local, continental and internal forces against apartheid.
After the end of apartheid rule, he became a member of Parliament, then superintendent-general of education and eventually, government spokesperson - a top role within the South African public service. I remember there was a time when he was regarded as the dean of government operations. He was the catalyst, the warp and woof of government.
A difficult life outside government
As the government became increasingly corrupt, he found himself caught up by the web of corruption. And because he refused to cooperate with the lords of corruption he was eventually booted out of government and found himself locked out of any opportunity - be it the public service or private sector. He was left alone and at home with his devoted life, he became a leper. He was driven to the verge of despair.
This is how he narrates the predicament he found himself in for refusing to cooperate with the lords of corruption:
"I must confess that I did not fully realise the impact that speaking out about state capture would have on me and my family. It came at a great cost."
“I became a professional, political and social leper, shunned by friends and enemies alike. After leaving the public service, I thought the best way forward financially was to set myself up as an entrepreneur, but I had become a politically exposed person, a marked man…..soon the haunting calls of creditors started ringing and the banks started calling in loans and overdrafts."
"My creditors didn't care. To them, I was simply one of the thousands of bad debtors who had to be pursued relentlessly. Debts were piling up. Days became longer and nights became my enemy as sleep evaded me. At one point, alcohol and cigarettes found their way onto my list of bad habits."
"Despite my 17 years of experience in the public service and my many qualifications, which included senior executive certificates from Wits University and Harvard, the private sector refused to employ me. There were days when courage and hope seemed to fail me."
How we arrived here
Quo Vadis, how did we arrive here?
What began with mild to moderate symptoms had gone out of hand. Now, everything appears to be out of joint.
The major problem with South Africa is the collapse of values and culture. There is a connection between the quality of a people's imagination and thoughts – their dream of themselves – and their economic condition. It's possible to say, show me what and how a collective people think and I can tell you the state of their lives or their country's station. South Africa strikes me as a car in reverse gear, but presuming – in a case of grand delusion – to be headed forward.
We must begin by admitting our complicity in the rot that has overtaken our country. When apartheid ended, we all had a historical duty. We should have commenced the task of remaking South Africa into a veritable, vital, and robust nation that we will all enjoy. In other words, we should have grappled with that arduous, messy, but inescapable process of nation-building. And now here we are, forced to belong within a space that had no spirit-lifting narrative, no pathos or inspiring ideal to impart. A nation is envisioned and then carefully, deliberately painstakingly designed and built. No people in history have ever "eaten" their way into nation-building.
Why I am saying that is because it is clear to everybody that the political leadership is concerned with eating instead of leading, guiding and building a country. It seems that what occupies themselves at night and in their daily tasks is not how to develop South Africa but how to steal and steal more. Stealing and corruption have now become the order of the day - a way of life. The rot runs deep. The corruption runs deep. It has attacked all state organs. At the State Capture Inquiry, we have witnessed the kind of recklessness the political leaders go about in their work.
Maseko faced the monster head on
In the midst of the cobweb of corruption and insanity Maseko never wavered, he was clear as crystal where he stands – and he faced the monster head on. Why did he choose to take such a difficult position? He says: "I refused to be part of a scheme that was blatantly aimed at stealing from the poor. I was not prepared to be part of a government that was run by individuals who abused their positions and connections to the head of state to enrich themselves and their families. Too many South Africans lost their lives in the fight against apartheid and colonialism, and I was not prepared to sell this hard-won freedom for a few pennies."
Maseko was born and bred in Soweto. His father had only a Standard 4 (Grade 6) education and his mother never went to school. He was the fifth of six children. All children were cramped in one room, sleeping on the floor because there were no beds. This was a poor family and the children will go to school with nothing to eat the whole day.
Maseko was 12 years old when the Soweto youth uprisings broke out. This incident was to shape the rest of his life and from then on he became involved with the liberation of South Africa. And so, the following year, at the age of 13, he took on a path as a freedom fighter – a path that led him to becoming the secretary-general of Azanian Students Organisation. Apartheid had declared war on Africans and made them inferior. Since no human being ever accepts that he is inferior to others, there was a struggle to put down apartheid. That was Maseko's calling at a very young age.
Book an inspiration for public servants
And in 1994, the year of the dawn of democracy and the end of apartheid rule, Maseko became one of the youngest members of Parliament. There he was a backbencher, which means he was junior in rank among the MPs. At that level, you are only allocated few minutes to speak and raise issues. Often, it was about three minutes. He would spend a lot of time in the parliamentary library, conducting research on public issues, only to be limited in the presentation of his findings.
So eventually, he thought more and more about quitting his role in Parliament and the idea of joining the public service. He finally made a decision and had to speak to Cyril Ramaphosa, who was the head of the ANC caucus in Parliament at the time. The two had a fruitful meeting that took about 20 minutes and Ramaphosa advised the young man on his new path.
This book is valuable in many ways. First, in the narrowest sense, it serves as an inspiration and source of strength to South Africa's more than one million public servants. I have been a public servant for 14 years and still counting to know there are so many things done at the upper echelons of government that demoralises and render public servants ineffective. The Department of Public Service and Administration has been vigorous in its attempts to professionalise the public service. The first step towards the professionalisation of the public service is to boost the morale of public service.
In a wider scope, this book is an antidote and blueprint for South African society, which has been deformed and vitiated by political leadership that dwarf common sense with their brazenness and ability to shell-shock our sensibilities. The notion of state capture has defined South Africa.
The question is what's the way forward?
This book gives some insight into the way forward. Overcoming present challenges is but one of the necessary processes that we have to undergo as a nation so that we can come out stronger.
- Kanyane is based in Pretoria and consults on entrepreneurship and innovation. He has an MBA degree and has worked as research librarian at University of Johannesburg, Tshwane University of Technology and the Human Sciences Research Council.