Politically and privately, dolts must be ditched
For every train-wreck of a politician in SA there are 100 appalling bosses
As the television interview ended, and we went back to our lives like deer slowly drifting away from the glade in which a spaced-out and slightly paranoid doe has spontaneously combusted, we asked ourselves many questions about Mmamathe Makhekhe-Mokhuane, Sars’ chief of digital and IT, and user of metaphors involving the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir.
For instance, had she gone onto the SABC’s Morning Live show in her official capacity, or was this her debut as a conceptual performance artist? Is she a morning person and, if she is, what happens in the SARS IT department in the afternoon when she crashes? Does she have a special rail in her office from which she can hang, sloth-like, in those exhausting post-lunch hours?
The question most South Africans were asking, however, was a more logical one: on what planet is someone like this paid a literal fortune to head up a department of immense strategic importance?
Of course, the question isn’t new. We’ve been hearing variations on that theme for years, as an apparently endless procession of millionaire chair-warmers has shuffled through the spotlight of national outrage.
Right now, however, the question is everywhere. How, we keep asking, are the likes of Bathabile Dlamini and Malusi Gigaba still in government? Why hasn’t Tom Moyane been fired yet?
It feels good and important to ask these things, but I suspect the answer might be more complex than we might like.
It seems logical to be outraged by bad leaders and bad bosses, but I suspect that this outrage is the visible, adult reflection of a largely hidden, childlike belief that most leaders and bosses are good simply because they are leaders and bosses. It’s the same belief that makes people assume that someone in a priest’s cassock is kind or that someone in a police uniform respects the law.
It’s why, when a business goes under, the public post mortems dwell on the shrinking economy, or the business model, or not enough bums on seats, while almost nothing gets said about the abilities of the people who oversaw the wreck.
Which is strange, given that most working people in this country have a horror story about a boss. I don’t mean petty gossip about decent employers. I mean a blood-pressure-raising, expletive-laden diatribe about a boss who is simply, objectively, diabolically terrible at his or her job, from the petty villain and ham-fisted cretin who lies or shifts blame, to the jargon-spouting nincompoop who’s always three beats behind the conversation and the paranoid tyrant who thinks fear is the same as respect.
I’ve been lucky to work for some solid human beings, but I’ve also encountered bosses so hilariously bad at their lucrative jobs that I spent a lot of my time grinning at them knowingly, convinced we were all part of an unscripted mocumentary.
For example, there was the CEO who sent out DVDs to industry rivals, believing them to contain marketing bumph, when in fact they contained his private thoughts on his own company's strategy and those of his competitors.
There was the Nice Guy executive overheard on the office intercom mocking his employees for being mere employees.
And, of course, on a smaller scale, there was the television director – an executive producer, no less – who did endless takes of a particular scene, each worse than the last, because he hadn’t understood a joke in the script and was too vain to ask me to explain it to him.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to work with these people for very long, thanks to the fate that awaits all true incompetents in the corporate world: promotion. No sooner had they cocked up than they were sliding sideways and upwards, ready to face new challenges and be completely defeated by them.
All of which brings me back to the Mmamathe Makhekhe-Mokhuanes, Bathabile Dlaminis and Malusi Gigabas of the world, and our incredulity that they are still employed.
I don’t believe it is misplaced. We must keep demanding that the people who run our country must be excellent, or, at very least, not terrible.
But perhaps it’s worth considering that for every train-wreck of a politician in SA there are a hundred appalling bosses in the private sector, each busily mainstreaming arrogance and normalising mediocrity.
And perhaps it’s worth remembering that bad political bosses are not an anomalous plague sent out of nowhere to torment us, but are made in the same places that make bad corporate bosses: homes, institutions and cultures that tell the unteachable that they are untouchable.
Yes, Cyril Ramaphosa must ditch the dolts, and yes, we must keep demanding better from the people who sit in parliament. But when will we start demanding the same from the suits upstairs?