The Ace I knew: a courteous, concerned and committed premier
My positive experience of Magashule starkly contrasts with the corruption claims - but they must be tested in court
For seven years I was required to work with the man everyone in the Free State would call by the shorthand name “Premier”, minus the definite article. Premier says this, Premier says that. I had no choice but to work with the man who later became the secretary-general of the ANC, Ace Magashule.
As vice-chancellor of a university with a medical school, the relationship between the premier and the rector is absolutely critical. Medical school staff are hired on what are called “joint appointments”, which means the doctors are appointed for their academic duties by the university but appointed also by the provincial government for their professional obligations in the public hospitals. This arrangement is extremely demanding for the leadership of a university hosting a medical school; in a province like the Free State it was an absolute nightmare. I easily spent 30% of my management time doing nothing else but dealing with the political, financial and accreditation threats facing the University of the Free State (UFS) medical school.
Here is one example of how trouble comes about. If “the province” does not advertise and appoint academic doctors because of a lack of funds (the most common reason in this region), a political spat about a “white” appointment or simple bureaucratic ineptness, the training platform for trainee doctors is immediately in jeopardy and the accreditation of the MBChB (the basic medical degree) comes under threat of withdrawal. If accreditation lapsed, the consequences for the university were very serious. For this reason it was vital that I kept an open line to the premier’s office to press for the urgent release of funds or the timely appointment of academic doctors. It was a daily battle.
What I can say is that I had the fullest co-operation of the premier at all times. He always struck me as courteous, concerned and committed to academics at the UFS. Often he would come to my office for a meeting rather than require that I make the trip to his rather modest offices. I remember that unlike most politicians he would return my calls within an hour of leaving a message with his staff. We maintained a relationship based on mutual respect and co-operation even during strained relations between the mainly white academics in the medical school and the black managers in the hospitals. Often we co-chaired difficult meetings of staff in order to bring factions together.
One of the things I admired the premier for was his absolute commitment to financing students in need. At the start of every academic year, the premier would ask me for a long list of all students who lacked funding and he would work tirelessly to raise the funds to support these young people in need. I watched like a hawk to ensure that not only students aligned to his party’s youth movement received funding; I need not have worried about partisanship since all students were considered for financial assistance from the premier’s office.
It was, after all, this premier whose MEC for education came to see me to ask the university to help revitalise education in the province. “We do not like you because you always criticise the party,” said the MEC, but then added quickly: “Can you help us with the schools?” I know for a fact this would not have happened without the premier’s blessing and today the Free State province has for the first time among the best average results in the Grade 12 examinations.
Yes, there were always rumours of corruption. Yes, every now and then there was gossip about “hits” on political opponents. And of course everybody spoke about the fraught tender processes in the Free State that enriched all those positioned down the receiving line of big- and small-town parasites. But I stuck to my primary mission – to protect the university’s reputation for top-quality medical education and to ensure that the relationship of the UFS and the provincial government remained a positive one.
I have no reason to doubt many of the corruption claims made about the Free State premier in Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s new book, Gangster State. I was deeply distressed to learn about the former premier’s race-laced remarks calling on black people not to vote for umlungu (white people). And I am still outraged by the thugs who disrupted the Sandton launch of Myburgh’s book followed by tame, belated and contradictory responses from the ruling party.
I eventually decided to submit this column in part because I have always been suspicious of simple, straightforward, journalistic reports of leaders and their lives. The story of this premier is certainly more complex than the one-dimensional accounts of his role within SA’s democracy.
That said, it is a matter of urgent justice that corruption claims against the former premier be tested in the courts of the land without fear or favour. Until that happens, there is the real danger that even a book-length narration about corruption by this senior politician simply passes as another media scandal that fades from view as we move on to the next expose about another crooked politician.