Principled, passionate and committed Kimi Makwetu ‘died with his boots on’

12 November 2020 - 17:48
By Claudi Mailovich
Auditor-general Kimi Makwetu.
Image: BUSINESS DAY Auditor-general Kimi Makwetu.

For the last seven years of his life, auditor-general Kimi Makwetu was SA’s hoarse-voiced moral compass.

After serving the country with a single-minded focus as head of the chapter 9 institution, in which he first served as deputy, 54-year-old Makwetu would have finished his term as auditor-general at the end of November.

In an interview with Business Day in October, he said he looked forward to being able to do things he did not have time for as head of the office, such as watching his son play cricket.  

He said he was ready to step away from public service — though he would do the job again if he lived twice — but vowed he would remain a “useful citizen”. 

“But I’m certainly still young. At my age it will be frowned upon if I said I’m retreating to the back. People like archbishop [emeritus] Desmond Tutu will cry foul as they have pushed on to these late years,” he said in October.  

Makwetu’s death on Wednesday came as a shock to the South African public, as it was not generally known that he had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2018. He died in hospital, his office said.

The response to his death gives an indication of the influence he has had on the country, and the fact that he, unlike so many others, left the public service with his integrity intact and an institution that has gone from strength to strength under his leadership.

In a statement, the ANC said Makwetu served his profession and the people of SA with distinction and dignity.

“As we mourn Makwetu’s passing and ponder the future, let us make a solemn commitment never to abandon his proud legacy of clean and accountable administration.”

The DA’s Jan de Villiers said the party trusted that his legacy will have a lasting impression on all public servants and the office of the auditor-general. 

The SA Local Government Association said his leadership was exemplary and his stewardship of this highly respected office propelled it to even greater heights.

Sipho Pityana, president of Business Unity SA, described Makwetu as a gentle yet unwavering giant in the fight against corruption and maladministration.

“Kimi Makwetu’s piercing mind focused our attention, not only on the symptoms of this scourge, but its foundation and root causes.

“His consistent and reliable findings offered clear answers to the question of what it is that needs to be done to restore our nation to good governance and ethical leadership. To our peril, this sober, steadfast and scrupulous voice was ignored,” Pityana said.

While Makwetu’s frustration was palpable every time he spoke about the deterioration of audit outcomes and the ever growing disregard for any form of accountability, he continued shouting it from the heavens.

He steered clear of euphemisms as he set out in cold, hard detail the financial deterioration in SA’s spheres of government and its departments and entities, and the effect that maladministration and corruption had on ordinary South Africans and service delivery. A spade was a spade — and money spent on a fence where there was no fence was clearly an issue.

Makwetu was unfazed by whether his blunt approach made him unpopular. He was there to serve the constitution and SA’s people, not political heads and accounting officers who played loose and fast with public money.

And that he did.

While Makwetu himself said his legacy should be judged by those people his work affected, it can be said without a doubt that his legacy is multifold.

Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) chair Mkhuleko Hlengwa told Business Day the additional powers the auditor-general obtained during Makwetu’s time in office — which ensured that accounting officers can be held accountable for material irregularities under their watch — was the hallmark of Makwetu’s tenure. 

But it was far from the only one.

He said Makwetu had the ability to rise above the divides of politics, and built an office that was sustainable far beyond his tenure. It was not about him, it was about building up the institution.

Hlengwa said he led from the front when the office was under attack, but ensured he worked side by side with colleagues, such as his deputy, Tsakani Maluleke, who will be his successor.  

“He died with his boots on,” Hlengwa said, referring to Makwetu briefing Scopa mere weeks ago.

While knowledge about his private life is limited, colourful details dot his no-nonsense public persona.

He told Business Day he grew up in Gugulethu in Cape Town.

Lessons learnt from his father and mother, Vela and Maureen Makwetu, who both died before Makwetu became auditor-general, remained a constant in his life and helped him do his job.

A lighthearted video taken at an event a few weeks ago in which the staff at the auditor-general’s office said goodbye to him shows Makwetu dancing, seemingly without a care in the world, as his colleagues cheer him on.

He described himself in his curriculum vitae as a “dynamic and a driven leader, in the seventh year of a seven-year term ending in November 2020 in the office of the auditor-general (SA)”.

According to his CV, his hobbies were “reading, listening to music and playing basic golf”.

He said he was married to Miranda and blessed with three children.

While Thembekile “Kimi” Makwetu has left an indelible mark on SA, the country he had many plans for in the coming years is a much poorer place than it was a mere day ago.

Business Day