Practical Reason blog

This blog contains some of my opinion pieces and short essays about politics. I will also place topical personal and political writing here.

Some of my books and edited collections are listed in the sidebar to the right. I have tried to indicate their intended audiences.

The home page shows deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and NUM general secretary Frans Baleni at a NUM meeting in Boksburg in 2015.

In the 2014 photo above, taken at the Presidential Guesthouse, President Zuma had just returned from Moscow, amidst rumours of illness or even poisoning. He seemed fragile and vulnerable. This did not last.

Anthony Butler

Rationing in the times of HIV and Covid-19

The national lockdown that starts from Friday may buy SA some time. The unprecedented worldwide search for effective treatments could bear fruit, and our public health authorities have an opportunity to start systematic testing for the coronavirus.

Given the limited capacity of the country’s public health system, however, there are difficult and unavoidable decisions ahead about how scarce resources should be allocated. Governments always have limited resources, whereas health-care demands are essentially limitless. This poses the question: which patients first?

Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered in 1922 that insulin could be used to treat diabetes. But only small quantities could be made. Banting simply decided himself who would be saved; this included his friends and powerful politicians.

In the early 1940s, the efficacy of penicillin as a treatment for a wide range of bacterial infections became clear. Since this was wartime, military uses were prioritised. Penicillin was “rationally” allocated according to its efficacy and the speed with which it would enable soldiers to return to the front. This meant gonorrhoea among soldiers was given priority over the lives of sick children.

Dialysis became feasible for chronic kidney disease in the early 1960s. Seattle’s Artificial Kidney Centre decided that “rational” choices should be made about which patients would have access to this lifelong and expensive treatment. A patient selection committee decided that beneficiaries had to be taxpayers in the state of Washington. Patients were also ranked by “social worth”: occupation, income, education, emotional stability and “future potential”.

A less explicit rationing unfolded two decades ago in SA with respect to antiretroviral (ARV) medication. Specialists argued about the merits of treating early phase HIV patients, who had better survival prospects rates, or later phase patients whose condition was more “urgent”. There was also debate about whether to prioritise children or specific occupational groups.

In reality, campaigners partly ducked the issue by arguing for a “universal programme” that could not be provided. Politicians were wary about becoming embroiled in debates about who should be treated, and hid themselves behind the obfuscation and confusion of the “denialist” era.

In practice, the question “which patients first?” was answered arbitrarily and unjustly. Resources were concentrated in private sector clinics and hospitals. Large companies extended coverage to their skilled workers to prevent reduced productivity and skills shortages.

Politicians, judges and senior public servants joined the rich at the front of the queue. Special programmes were designed for soldiers and police officers to maintain public order and the stability of the state. Health-care workers themselves received privileged access because they were at risk of infection and had to be well if they were to treat others.

Donor agencies elaborated their own criteria for deserving recipients. “Adherence to treatment” assessments saw patients selected on the basis of their family background, clinic attendance, emotional stability and commitment to safe sex.

Who was at the end of the queue? Rural programmes were almost nonexistent. The very poor everywhere were unable to pay the bribes that were sometimes needed. Outsiders or refugees found access hard or impossible.

Those stigmatised or confused about HIV/Aids simply did not come forward for testing or treatment. And those denied the education and information they needed to make informed choices about their own health died in ignorance of potential treatments.

Patient selection will be a potentially divisive issue once again over the coming months. Perceptions of unfairness could easily aggravate tensions based on race, class, religious belief or country of origin. In the short time we have been bought, we need a broader public debate, both about how very few patients our health system will be able to treat, and about the criteria by which they will be selected.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Coronavirus and HIV

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the Covid-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch argues that “within the coming year some 40%-70% of people around the world will be infected with the virus that causes Covid-19”.

The WHO has called for greater urgency on the part of governments. By its estimate, 13% of symptomatic patients will require hospitalisation and 6% will need intensive care.

In Japan, Iran, Italy and South Korea cases exploded from tens to hundreds to thousands in the course of weeks. Affected governments are moving from containment strategies to mitigation ones, trying to flatten the peak of the epidemic to allow time to prepare health systems for the huge caseload.

South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and others are quite effectively using “social distancing” measures, initially isolating sick individuals and their contacts but then moving swiftly to “reduce social connectivity” by cancelling gatherings and events. Citizens have been told to work from home, wash hands regularly and thoroughly, avoid travel and crowded places, and self-isolate when they feel sick.

SA may be vulnerable. We are young, but we have poor respiratory health as a result of our high prevalence of HIV and tuberculosis (TB) infection. There are weaknesses in the public health system with regard to training, overcrowding and shortages of protective masks, clothing and critical care ventilators.

Poverty may increase vulnerability as a result of immune system weakness, a lack of access to reliable information, and overcrowded settlements and public transport systems. Most workers cannot work from home, and they lack paid sick leave to fund self-isolation. Further challenges result from the circulation of people between rural and urban areas, and hostel accommodation in institutions such as prisons.

SA can learn from the experiences of countries at a more advanced stage of the pandemic, and we are fortunate to have the capabilities of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) to draw on.

Three lessons of our own HIV epidemic may be especially valuable. First, credible communication is vital and the government must remain honest to retain public trust.

Second, we need a “whole of government” approach. Like HIV/Aids, Covid-19 is not just a health challenge that can be managed by the health department. Every government institution, especially large employers such as the departments of education and police, must take steps to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among their workforces. Feasible self-isolation strategies cannot be planned from the centre.

Each national department needs to prepare a plan for supporting its particular “clients”. Are schools implementing appropriate hygiene and disinfection strategies? How exactly will Covid-19 be managed in our prisons? How will our development and trade departments support businesses facing disrupted supply chains?

Moreover, intervention windows are available to every minister, if they can be identified. Has the department of transport formulated guidance for minimising the spread of the coronavirus in taxis, trains and buses? Has traditional affairs developed a strategy for mobilising traditional leaders and healers? How will the transmission risk posed by social grant distribution be managed? Will the water & sanitation department resurrect former minister Ronnie Kasrils’s water, sanitation and health (Wash) programme from the early 2000s to facilitate handwashing in poorer communities?

A third lesson from HIV is that the government sometimes needs to grasp the nettle. It is difficult to see why sporting events, religious meetings, university lectures and any other large and unnecessary gathering in a public venue or private company should go ahead given that these pose a clear risk of accelerating the epidemic. As Lipsitch observes, the goal is to minimise the number of contacts between people early on, in the hope of averting the need for more drastic and costly interventions later.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Three elephants

Readers of the Book of Revelation have long prophesied that credit ratings agency Moody’s post-budget day of judgment will be preceded by the arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, representing war, famine, pestilence and death.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has tried to defy such gloomy prophesies by unleashing instead the three great elephants of the liberation movement: mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and finance minister Tito Mboweni.

The elephant represents strength and patience, symbolising the wisdom, loyalty, reliability and determination that characterise the creature’s behaviour in the wild. The giant African political elephant, known to science as Loxodonta Mantashe Africana, presents a magnificent spectacle. The largest mammal in the world, with a torso span of more than 4m, it drinks upwards of 100l of water per day, and communicates by means of low-frequency rumbles that can be heard a dozen kilometres away.

Mantashe’s critics forget that once roused to anger he can storm unstoppably across the plains of Boksburg or through the meetings of the national executive committee. In recent months he has generated confusion, even despair, among energy sector analysts, but the direction of his march towards independent power production, municipal electricity generation and a renewable energy transition has finally become set.

Gordhan is widely revered as a repository of the deepest secrets and a divine representation of intellect and wisdom. The elephant is typically a gentle giant and very slow to anger, but the relentless provocation of Ganesha Gordhan by the EFF leadership will not be forgotten. When yapping and snarling EFF members cornered the minister in parliament in July last year, Gordhan stood unmoved and entirely fearless, simply demanding that “they must touch me”.

In his budget speech on Wednesday, Mboweni revealed himself as the third member of the government’s elephant herd. Disdainfully ignoring calls for prescribed assets and the tapping of public sector pension funds, he pushed back against central bank nationalisation and advanced the cause of exchange control liberalisation. Then, flapping his great ears, he charged fearlessly in the general direction of the public sector unions.

We must not get ahead of ourselves. Elephants do not always move very fast. Gordhan, Mantashe and Mboweni may be pragmatists, but they view the world through dramatically different intellectual lenses. As a result of their enormous bulk, the three can cause great damage to one another if they fight.

The financial and operational crises in the parastatals have meanwhile not been resolved. The Treasury no longer claims that national debt is on course to stabilise over the medium term. The likely rate of growth in the years immediately ahead remains dismal. The scope for damaging unintended consequences from public sector disruption should not be underestimated.

Nevertheless, the boldness of the three ministers offers some reason for hope. Ramaphosa’s government has appeared paralysed by powerful commercial and political interests and enmeshed in debilitating internal compromises that make reform impossible.

All three ministers, in their unique ways, have dragged themselves out of the swamp that is ANC economic policy and asserted positions at odds with the movement’s prevailing and untenable conventional wisdom. Government action freed from party shackles has been shown to be possible — at least in principle.

Have the three elephants done enough to push back an expected Moody’s downgrade decision in March? It is hard to say. The agency shares with the authors of the Book of Revelation a reticence about specifying the precise conditions that will precipitate the apocalypse, and a remarkable talent for mystification. But Mboweni has probably won the government a little more time.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Orange jumpsuits and the NPA

Picture: 123RF/Yulia Koltyrina

Picture: 123RF/Yulia Koltyrina



Vengeance is in the air. In a marked deviation from the ANC’s preferred post-Zuma script, citizens are clamouring for state capture miscreants to be put in prison.

ANC leaders anticipated that the Zondo commission of inquiry into allegations of state capture would push any reckoning back to 2021 or 2022, by which time public anger would have abated.

The Zondo commission began promisingly for the cover-up crowd: the key victims of its work were fundamentally honest men, including former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene.

While the inquiry meandered on, the guilty parties had time to get their stories straight and decide which junior officials would take the rap.

So slow is the inquiry that we may soon see the Seriti commission’s “Modise” option brought into play. Named after a former defence minister, the late Joe Modise, this refers to the attribution of criminal misconduct solely to people who have fortuitously died.

Many citizens are no longer persuaded of the merits of the commission model. This has been brought into focus in recent weeks by the activities of the Anglicans, an amiable Christian sect perhaps best known for unfamiliarity with the Old Testament, support for renewable energy and faith in the value of forgiveness.

According to chapter eight of the gospel according to St John, Jesus responded to demands that a woman be stoned to death for committing adultery with the words, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” This is very much the sentiment of the national executive committee of the ANC.

Former North West premier Supra “Black Jesus” Mahumapelo has been the most vocal proponent of the Anglican “missionary” position that blame must not be fuelled by self-righteous anger.

The Anglicans, however, have now abandoned their own philosophy of forgiveness. Delivering his recent Christmas sermon at St George’s cathedral, Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba proclaimed 2020 the “year of the orange jumpsuit”. Initially misinterpreted as a fashion guideline for dowdy Anglican youth groups, it transpired that these words referred to “a year of reckoning for those whose greed has driven the country to the brink of disaster”.

This week, more than 30 civil society organisations gathered at the cathedral to reiterate the demand that 2020 should be the year of orange overalls. The twin proponents of forgive and forget — Black Jesus and deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo — have failed to assuage popular anger. A huge weight of expectation now lies on the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

Huge political fallout will follow perceived bias in case selection. Describing the list of the potential accused as “impossibly long”, Hermione Cronje, the head of the NPA’s investigative directorate, recently spoke about a process of dividing cases into “priority areas”. South Africans, she claimed, will see the “logic and the strategy” once charges have been laid. However, the principles according to which such prioritisation has been undertaken are crucially important.

At a lecture at the University of Cape Town in January, Cronje observed infelicitously that, “we know who we are after and we will prosecute them”. Mahumapelo and his crowd are already building a counter-narrative about politically engineered prosecutions, condemning “machinations” designed to “make sure that the political challenges that are there are not resolved politically, but are [instead] resolved through the courts”.

The last time politicised case selection became an issue in the ANC, the relevant NPA agency — the directorate of special operations, better known as the Scorpions — was closed down in short order.

The NPA urgently needs to develop a clear and consistent set of principles according to which cases are to be selected and taken forward. These principles need to be articulated and defended openly by government ministers and the president.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

What’s Lindiwe Sisulu up to?

Human settlements, water & sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu is the closest thing to a celebrity politician in today’s ANC. But her high profile exposes her to more intense scrutiny than less famous ministers.

In recent weeks she has come under fire for her appointment of former spy boss Mo Shaik and former prosecuting authority head Menzi Simelane to her ministerial staff. This controversy came hot on the heels of her decision last November to elevate former social development minister Bathabile Dlamini to the chair of the interim board of the social housing regulatory authority.

The appointment of former spooks, liars, and incompetents to positions of power is far from unusual in the contemporary ANC, but it is just too obvious that Shaik and Simelane are not water and sanitation experts. The relentless political ambitiousness that has marked Sisulu’s career has inevitably led to claims that a “leadership bid” lies behind her recent actions.

As the daughter of ANC giants Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Lindiwe has always been liberation movement royalty. She rose through Umkhonto we Sizwe as an intelligence specialist, and eventually as a key assistant to top spook Jacob Zuma. She served Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki as deputy home affairs minister, keeping a wary eye on her senior, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. She was briefly rewarded with the position she craved, that of intelligence minister, but Mbeki quickly moved her sideways to housing. Zuma brought her back to international relations before shuffling her to public administration and then back to housing (now more grandly called “human settlements”) where she remains uncomfortably confined.

In the ANC she has “seniority”, but she also has a very long history of misjudgments for a presidential hopeful. Her notorious extravagance, most memorably her solo trips on air force planes, is out of step with our more austere times.

In October 2017, in the run-up to the Nasrec conference at which she hoped to be elected president, she became embroiled in a slanging match with Gwede Mantashe, questioning his record as secretary-general and asking “where was he when we were fighting for this freedom in exile and in jail”. This claim that exiles were superior to mineworker organisers such as Mantashe confirmed to many that she was out of touch and arrogant.

It is little wonder that the water “master plan” she launched hurriedly in 2019  was widely greeted as a personal vanity project.

Sisulu has long considered herself presidential material, but since she is 65 years old — part of Ramaphosa’s generation rather than deputy president David Mabuza’s or ANC treasurer Paul Mashatile’s cohort — there is no credible strategy for her to ascend to the throne after two Ramaphosa terms.

This leaves an ambitious politician with only long-shot avenues to power. She could position herself as a “third-way” compromise candidate in the event of a 2022 challenge to the incumbent from Mabuza and Mashatile. Or she may be contemplating a more direct presidential run in 2022, resuscitating the “time for a woman” campaign that failed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma so dismally.

Last May, she ostentatiously joined the ANC Women’s League, of which Bathabile Dlamini is president. Dlamini warmly embraced her, observing that “she is coming to be part of a big family that is here to stay”. ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule has littered recent speeches with condemnations of “patriarchy”. Anti-Ramaphosa forces may seek to make gender a battleground, possibly resurrecting the failed smear campaigns they undertook so ineptly before Nasrec.

Another scenario is perhaps more plausible. Sisulu may have gotten wind of potential legal obstacles to deputy president Mabuza continuing in office after 2022. Such a development would leave the position of deputy president open for contestation, and gender could become a decisive determinant of the outcome.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Of testicles and tigers

President Cyril Ramaphosa was beleaguered this week. A manufactured army of protesters demanded that he strip public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and his department of control of the Eskom reform process.

Direct attacks on the leadership capabilities of the president also escalated, some of them from erstwhile allies. In an example of an organisation discovering it had testicles at just the wrong moment, Business Unity SA chair Sipho Pityana railed this week against “summits, conferences and lekgotlas”. He demanded “credible, single-minded, resolute and decisive leadership that sets the tone, determines direction and pulls the nation with it”.

Both sets of critics are likely to be disappointed. Ramaphosa is unlikely to be transformed overnight into a conviction politician. But it is also improbable that he will sacrifice Gordhan as a result of political pressure.

Pityana’s pointed comments certainly raise legitimate questions about Ramaphosa’s presidency. Do the president’s problems flow from personal psychological or intellectual limitations? Or are they a product of fundamental clashes of interests that make leadership almost impossible?

In common with many national leaders, Ramaphosa has realised his lifetime’s ambition to become state president. He would not be the first to discover that the qualities that got him the job are not the ones he needs to succeed at it.

But the president is learning that lines in the sand can work. During last year’s SA Reserve Bank “crisis”, in which the proxy issue of public ownership was deployed to destabilise his administration, Ramaphosa’s decision to reappoint the Bank governor to a second term brought a whipped-up political storm to an abrupt close.

He probably knows he will soon have to make a clear statement of a nonnegotiable Eskom reform pathway and timeline. This is a prerequisite for maintaining any kind of coalition behind him.

The bigger issue is that Ramaphosa faces a deep and almost unmanageable clash of interests. At Eskom, an unholy alliance has been forged between unions representing the workers in the coal-energy complex and beneficiaries of the parastatal’s coal and diesel supply chains. These vested interests have direct influence within the ANC through the tripartite alliance and as party (and lifestyle) funders.

Some critics complain that Ramaphosa simply does not know what he is doing. His backgrounds in black consciousness politics, trade unions and business pull him this way and that. He has no clear intellectual or moral framework, they argue, and so he simply cannot decide what to do.

This is improbable. Indeed, Ramaphosa’s detached approach has many merits. He has surrounded himself with a concentric circle of economy cluster ministers who represent distinct approaches to the way forward.

Novelist F Scott Fitzgerald once observed that a test of intelligence is “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”. In this complex situation Ramaphosa is probably right not to rely on his own immediate instincts.

What does this imply about the future of Pravin Gordhan? Gordhan is a target because he sat for almost two decades at the top of the most important informal intelligence network in SA. Relentless attacks on him over the past decade, from captured institutions, the public protector and the EFF, testify to fear of Gordhan and his network: perhaps a decade of criminal activity is finally going to result in prosecutions.

Gordhan is also custodian of the only Eskom plan we have. Passing the job on to Gwede Mantashe and his ramshackle department would mean a resurgent coal lobby, no single market operator and prescribed assets to keep the leaky vessel afloat. Will Ramaphosa abdicate his presidential responsibilities because Mantashe is his friend and closest political ally? I would bet not.


• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Santa column. Last one

Ho ho ho! We have reached that time in the year when the little boys and girls across the land look forward to a visit by a fat man in a red suit carrying a sack of shiny presents.

Santa has the hardest job in the world. He runs the workshop where the toys are made, oversees the elves who do the work, and trains the reindeer that pull his sleigh. He has to deliver millions of gifts to almost impossible deadlines.

Recently the little children have been very sad. Grumpy Santa Thabo didn’t like giving gifts at all, and Santa Jacob gave all the best presents to his friends and relatives. Nerthus (“mother earth”) Dlamini-Zuma rode a sleigh all the way from Addis to save us, but somehow we got Chinese Santa Cyrildene instead.

Father Christmas has to be very round and jolly, and silly folk once said Cyril was too thin to do the job. He always used to stand next to Gwede “Low Centre of Gravity” Mantashe, the Reindeer Not Responsible For Energy After All. Because of the so-called “moon illusion”, Mantashe appeared gigantic when he was close to the horizon, which made Cyril look skinny by comparison. But now Uncle Gwede has got stuck in the chimney while trying to fix the Medupi generator Cyril’s supposed rivals, such as Lindiwe “I’m a real Princess” Sisulu, and the three skinny dwarves, “DD”, Paul and Zweli, are all much too thin to be real Santas.

Santa Zuma’s friends have been sent to a correctional facility by the sea, called “Bosasa Parliamentary Precinct”. Bongani “big bottom” Bongo, Faith Mutant, Mostbendy Zany and Tina “Swedish Moneybags” Pettersson have become “committee chairpersons”. This means they sit on chairs all day long and aren’t allowed to do anything. Ho ho ho!

The little boys and girls are likely to be disappointed once again this year. Their favourite uncle or aunt, Mbaks “Zandile Gumede” Mbalula, doesn’t love them any more.

The gender-balanced children’s leadership, Julius and Floydinia, wrote a manifesto with their crayons that turned out to be political correctness gone mad!

Now they have a new “Top Six”: themselves plus four little boys and girls nobody has ever heard of, called Poppy, Omphy, Marshy and Veronica. Everyone with more than 100 Twitter followers has been sacked. Like “Doc” the Ice Boy, all the little children now have to kneel down before Big Julius. But what will they all do when the Top Two go to jail?

Santa Cyril’s biggest problem is getting the job done. The old factory management dwarf, Rob “pointy ears” Davies, has retired (to the 1970s). But Santa has replaced him with Ebrahim “pointy ears” Patel, who has just the same ears, and ideas.

The new Reindeerial Handbook hasn’t really cut the cost of sleighs, and the National Development McPlan Meal has gone cold. Meanwhile, the elves are growing restless. Since last Christmas, Santa has been paying them the Very Minimal Wage to make unemployment go down, but amazingly this has not worked! Now the crazy elves want Santa to raid their own piggy bank, the Piggies Investment Corporation, to keep the Goblin Run Enterprises going.

But Pravin Goblin, the previous Keeper of the Golden Chest, still does not know how to fix the generator. In fact, Snoozy Zondo’s Cover-Up Commission, fuelled by gazillions in lawyers’ fees, has produced far more hot air.

Santa exists only because the little children believe that he does. If he doesn’t get a move on and set the generator, the factory and the reindeer in motion, little boys and girls across the land will at long last stop believing in him. Then Santa, and the magical movement that he leads, will simply disappear into thin air.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

The great parastatal scandal

Politicians are not very good at running state-owned enterprises (SOEs). But they do have a different, and highly developed, skill-set: blaming other people for the things they have screwed up.

On the face of it, the catastrophe at SAA would appear to be the fault of the ANC. After all, it was the ANC’s own fundraising committee that fired the starting pistol that set the SOE parasites crawling, when it decided the ANC-aligned Chancellor House investment vehicle should begin looting Eskom during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki.

Under Jacob Zuma, in a “state-led development” strategy that was applauded by the ANC’s alliance partners, union federation Cosatu and the SACP, a whole swathe of parastatals were opened up to the swindlers.

SAA’s corrupt procurement spend, and its evergreen contracts for politically connected suppliers, are not the fault of people working in the airline industry, or caused by sector-specific challenges. They are part of a wider and conscious political strategy that generated wealth and highly remunerated employment for countless party activists, their relatives, and their political networks.

In turn, the parastatal supply chain barons have generously bankrolled the liberation movement. This strategy could not have been sustained without the extension of hundreds of billions of rand in Treasury loan guarantees to SOEs, in full knowledge that these were very likely to be called in by creditors.

Almost all of the actors in play today at SAA were a part of this great parastatal stitch-up: the ministers, the unions that supported the “developmental parastatal” fantasy, the deployee-rich boards, and those who are still feeding off company supply chains.

Today the airline has no financial runway only because the fiscus is dry. Business rescue was evidently forced on the board and the shareholder, not because it was recognised as right but because it became inevitable.

At best, the outcome will be a much-needed restructuring of the airline and its associated group of companies. At worst — and it is much worse — we will see a less orderly liquidation of the airline in fairly short order.

The professional politicians have responded in the way they know best: by blaming everybody else. The department of public enterprises agreed a 6% pay rise before blaming the unions for damaging the “credibility” of the airline’s turnaround strategy.

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) blamed the SAA board and corrupt managers for a failure to turn the company around. The board criticised the banks for not lending billions more without Treasury guarantees. The finance minister was blamed for refusing to extend such guarantees.

President Cyril Ramaphosa managed not to have an opinion one way or the other. Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan implied that all patriotic citizens would buy uninsured tickets from the bankrupt airline. DA shadow finance minister Geordin Hill-Lewis countered that “the most patriotic thing South Africans can do is to help shut down SAA”. We can shortly expect the DA to be blamed for SAA’s demise.

The next culpable agent will be the business rescue practitioner, who is legally answerable solely to the court, but ANC politicians will doubtless publicly second-guess its decisions. Ultimately it too will be a guilty party.

The trouble with all this blame-shifting is that the ANC does not seem to have learned any lessons from its SAA experience. There has been no admission of responsibility or error from the ANC about the great parastatal scandal.

The airline is a little flea in the corner of our parastatal disaster casualty ward. Eskom, the great elephant in the room, is still munching through what is left of the fiscus.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Assuming the position

New Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter. Picture: BLOOMBERG/WALDO SWIEGERS

New Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter. Picture: BLOOMBERG/WALDO SWIEGERS



Observers were perplexed this week by the process that led to Andre de Ruyter’s appointment as Eskom CEO. Unexpectedly, the public enterprises minister, rather than the president, made the announcement.

Pravin Gordhan has a hint of Churchill’s Russia about him: he is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Even by his mystifying standards, however, the press release was deeply baffling. It explained that 142 candidates for Eskom CEO were identified in a head-hunting process. Seventeen were short-listed, eight withdrew, the Eskom board interviewed six, four were asked to undergo competency tests, and a “final interview process was undertaken”, after which “the panel ranked three candidates”.

This “final” interview process was followed by “further interviews” which resulted in (the same?) “list of three candidates, with the indication of a preferred candidate”. The president then “appointed a team of cabinet ministers to consider the board’s recommendations”.

This column can exclusively reveal that Eskom’s human resources (HR) department was involved in the board interviews and “competency tests”. Several techniques are used by such HR professionals.

A “structured interview” reveals a candidate’s presentation and communication skills and their “fit” with the organisation’s work culture. Every candidate is asked the same questions to ensure fairness and comparability. The short-listed candidates were reportedly probed with these questions (correct guide answers supplied):

  • Is there a role for nuclear in the generation mix? (Yes, Mr Putin, sir.)
  • Can the Eskom crisis be blamed solely on “state capture”, or can it also be blamed on a former finance minister, Mr P Gordhan, who approved massive loan guarantees for the parastatal? (The former only.)
  • Do you remember a party fund-raising vehicle called Chancellor House that profited from the debacles at Medupi and Kusile? (Never heard of it.)
  • Where do you see yourself five years from now? (Unemployed, most probably.)

Eskom employment law experts advised that Skype should be used only to make preliminary assessments, and cannot substitute for a face-to-face interview, unless the candidate’s surname begins with “C”.

Recruitment professionals also recommend the use of an in-tray test. This is designed to simulate regular tasks associated with the position and allow direct observation of individual behaviour in the context of a job-relevant problem situation. For example, a candidate can be asked to take a series of coal supply chain contracts from his in-tray and immediately sign them at the bottom of the page without reading them.

Another widely used HR technique is the “leaderless group discussion”. Here a group of participants is told to discuss a topic for a specific period of time. No-one is appointed leader, and the assessors observe and rate the leadership, coaching, and teamwork capabilities of each candidate. This leaderless discussion technique is also known as the “national executive committee” method.

Mystery surrounds the ultimately decisive “ministerial team”. It appears to have consisted of Gordhan, trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel, mineral resources & energy minister Gwede “Tiger Brand” Mantashe, and the agriculture, land reform & rural development minister, Thoko Didiza. The latter’s presence may flow from the “too many men” HR problem, or from fear of the “Indian cabal” public relations nightmare. Or perhaps the three line ministers simply cannot agree on anything on their own — which helps to explain the Eskom crisis.

The ministers apparently “concurred with the board’s recommendation”. What precisely it is that the board recommended was, however, not revealed.

The successful candidate “assumes the position” in January 2020. To provide a timeous recruitment service, Eskom’s HR department has undertaken an advanced statistical analysis of De Ruyter’s likely period of employment. The data they have collected from previous CEOs’ tenures are as follows: Tshediso Matona (2014-15), Brian Molefe (2015-2016), Matshela Koko (2016-17), Johnny Dladla (2017-18), Phakamani Hadebe (2018-19), and Jabu Mabuza (2019-20). A fresh job advertisement will be in the papers first thing next week.


• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Sport in Schools

Siya Kolisi. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

Siya Kolisi. Picture: GALLO IMAGES



The EFF’s commissar for communications, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, posted a controversial Tweet in the aftermath of the Springboks’ World Cup victory: “Congratulations to [Springbok captain] #SiyaKolisi … the rest go get your congratulations from Prince Harry.”

There was some sympathy for Ndlozi’s implied question: why on earth was Prince Harry ushered into the Springboks’ dressing room after the match? If this was not an egregious demonstration of colonial privilege, the English will no doubt invite a son of King Goodwill Zwelithini into their dressing room next time their team win a tournament (should such an eventuality ever arise).

Many South Africans were more deeply angered by Ndlozi’s later elaboration: “Telling us the rugby victory means victory over racial division is utterly false.” As the wonderful euphoria fades, however, the question of what has actually been accomplished will return: have the Springboks conjured an extraordinary success out of thin air, without any underlying change in the mass base of sport in the country?

The advance of SA’s best black rugby players still seems to require good fortune as well as talent. Players from Eastern Cape such as Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am benefited from now crisis-ridden Border Bulldogs structures. Elton Jantjies attended Hoërskool Florida in Roodeport, a school renowned for academic achievement but also for sporting prowess. Sbu Nkosi attended Jeppe High School for Boys, and Trevor Nyakane Ben Vorster High School in Tzaneen. Cheslin Kolbe played rugby at primary school with his sluggish distant cousin Wayde van Niekerk (who can only run in straight lines) before moving to the well-resourced Brackenfell High School.

Team captain Siya Kolisi grew up in Zwide township outside Port Elizabeth. As a 12-year-old he so impressed talent scouts that he won a scholarship to Grey Junior in Port Elizabeth and then to Grey High School. This institution’s deep sporting tradition and excellent facilities were crucial to Kolisi’s development.

This school should not be confused with Grey College, SA’s top rugby school, which has produced 22 Springboks since 1996, all of them white. Yet Grey and other top rugby schools — Paul Roos, Paarl Gimnasium and Paarl Boys’ High — field overwhelmingly white first XVs. The Grey College rugby programme has corporate sponsors that include Puma, Powerade, Xerox, KFC and Standard Bank. Why is not clear: black rugby schools in the Eastern Cape — Dale, Queen’s and Selborne — are hugely less well-resourced.

It seems almost churlish to carp. In a validation of much-maligned transformation policies, the pressures on sporting codes to change racial representation at the highest levels have borne much fruit. This is no mean achievement: elite schools, sports academies, and concentrated coaching resources are crucial to top-tier success.

But the result has been a narrow funnel of success. A few schools are destined to continue to generate SA’s elite players, a majority of them white and a minority of them black. Critics can complain that, with the exception of Durban-based Glenwood, we do not have racially integrated elite rugby teams in schools.

Worse yet, there are still few broad-based programmes across the country’s schools as a whole, in which a wider pool of extraordinary talents can be nurtured.

Who is to blame? Only one institution has a network of 24,000 institutions housing 12-million young people: the state.

The government agrees that sport is good for you. After all, there is an annual National Public Servants Sports and Cultural Events tournament at which public servants engage in aerobics, darts, Zumba dancing, and many other activities.

The department of basic education has many priorities: plenty of schools, after all, still lack functional buildings, sanitation, electricity, and water. Nevertheless, a meaningful legacy of the World Cup would be a renewed focus on creating an ambitious sports programme — embracing pupils, teachers and parents — across the public school system as a whole.

Sport builds fitness, social cohesion, and mental health. Above all, it creates the support structures young people need if they are to avoid social pathologies such as drug-taking, alcohol abuse, risky sex, and membership of the EFF.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town