The Big Read: All the president's men
The general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, David Sipunzi, said something simple, yet profound, at the weekend. Speaking to the Sunday Times, he professed to being unsure about how the president of our republic chooses some of his cabinet ministers.
"Maybe he picks up the constitution and says, 'Oh, OK, I've got the right to do it' and then does it.we don't know," he confessed.
You cannot blame Sipunzi for being so confused. Our public life is filled with so much mediocrity that one has to wonder how this nation has any chance of making headway against poverty and unemployment given the quality of those with this important job.
With President Jacob Zuma has come the rise of the mediocre, the incompetent, the ineffective and the compromised.
Some of his cabinet choices - and those he chose to head key institutions such as the National Prosecuting Authority - have brought nothing but shame, confusion and dishonour to their portfolios. He has specialised in choosing the weak, the compromised and sometimes the outright corrupt for key portfolios.
How can the organisation of such greats as Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Pixley ka Isaka Seme and so many others tolerate an ignoramus such as Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane in such an important portfolio? This is a man whose every utterance confirms that he is a puppet, a shell who is the wooden accompaniment of a ventriloquist who lives in the Gupta family compound in Saxonwold or Dubai.
There are many others in the Zuma administration who are like this. Minister of Co-operative Governance Des van Rooyen has all but confirmed the suspicions about his appointment last year by appearing as a foot-soldier for Zuma at rallies at Luthuli House, and with his intemperate, ill-considered attacks on the finance minister - a cabinet colleague.
We shouldn't be surprised by his actions, for the company he keeps makes it clear who and what he is.
Van Rooyen is now the right-hand man of Kebby Maphatsoe, the man who unashamedly lied by branding Public Protector Thuli Madonsela a CIA spy. Maphatsoe is the rabid Zuma defender who admitted in court three weeks ago to being a liar and had to pay Ronnie Kasrils, the former intelligence minister, R500000.
Maphatsoe - who deserted his post in the camps of Umkhonto weSizwe - proudly serves as deputy minister of military veterans and defence. How he continues in the post can only be ascribed to his being a key cog in the machinery that protects Zuma and keeps his ego boosted.
How has Zuma avoided trial for fraud, corruption and racketeering for so long?
Last week two key cogs in the legal machinery that has prevented Zuma from getting his day in court - Nomgcobo Jiba, one of the four deputy heads of the National Prosecuting Authority, and Lawrence Mrwebi, the head of the Specialised Commercial Crimes Unit - were found to be not "fit and proper" to be advocates. Another Zuma ally, Hawks head Berning Ntlemeza, was found by the Pretoria High Court to have lied under oath.
Jiba and Mrwebi should not worry too much about their legal woes. They were found last week to have brought "the image of the legal profession, and of the prosecuting authority, into disrepute".
Well, Zuma was found by the Constitutional Court to have "failed to uphold, defend and respect the constitution". And he is still in office, in charge and laughing all the way to VBS Mutual Bank for a loan.
This is what we have become. Think of some of Zuma's incompetents: Faith Muthambi at the Communications Ministry, Dudu Myeni at SAA, David Mahlobo at State Security, Bathabile Dlamini at Social Development...
Why were they appointed in the first place? Because they are weak and pliable.
They have no other choices in life. When Zuma drops them, that is the end of their political life. They have to protect him at all costs, no matter what he does, no matter how much of the public fiscus is looted in his time.
It is easy to be depressed about all this mediocrity around us, but there is also brilliance in our state machinery. We must celebrate the sterling work done by the Constitutional Court - and other parts of the judiciary - which is an institution that has led by example. We must celebrate the incredible, inspirational Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and her office, which continues to be a brave and wonderful institution.
Then there are the government departments which are being harassed and intimidated to act for the few instead of the many. Yet they withstand the pressure. They fight back. Departments like the Treasury continue to be globally admired and continue to stand against the mediocrity of the likes of Zwane.
I raise a glass to them. After the people themselves, they are the people's only hope.