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All the President’s Men: Suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Where does our President find his men? They do not measure up against the former cadres of the movement. Instead, they fight in our courts to keep their jobs, they lie and influence respective boards to secure their jobs, and they cajole and interdict to stay. They have no shame, and because they are the President’s Men, they think they’re above reproach.

For those of us who take a keen interest in global affairs, I’m sure you would know about the infamous Watergate scandal in the USA. It was a major political scandal that occurred in the United States in the 1970s, following a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. in 1972 and President Richard Nixon’s administration’s attempted cover-up of its involvement. When the conspiracy was discovered and investigated by the U.S. Congress, the Nixon administration’s resistance to its probes led to a constitutional crisis.

The term Watergate has come to encompass an array of clandestine and often illegal activities undertaken by members of the Nixon administration. Those activities included such dirty tricks as bugging the offices of political opponents and people of whom Nixon or his officials were suspicious. Nixon and his close aides also ordered investigations of activist groups and political figures, using the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

According to several accounts of this scandal it led to the discovery of multiple abuses of power by the Nixon administration, an impeachment process against the president, and ultimately the resignation of Nixon. The scandal also resulted in the indictment of 69 people, with trials or pleas resulting in 48 being found guilty, many of whom were Nixon’s top administration officials.

The affair began with the arrest of five men for breaking and entering into the DNC headquarters at the Watergate complex on Saturday, June 17, 1972. The FBI investigated and discovered a connection between cash found on the burglars and a slush fund used by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP), the official organisation of Nixon’s campaign. In July 1973, evidence mounted against the president’s staff, including testimony provided by former staff members in an investigation conducted by the Senate Watergate Committee. The investigation revealed that President Nixon had a tape-recording system in his offices and that he had recorded many conversations.

After a series of court battles, the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the president was obliged to release the tapes to government investigators. The tapes revealed that Nixon had attempted to cover up activities that took place after the break-in, and to use federal officials to deflect the investigation. Facing virtually certain impeachment in the House of Representatives and equally certain conviction by the Senate, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974. On September 8, 1974, his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him.

The name Watergate and the suffix-gate” have since become synonymous with political and non-political scandals in the United States.

And so, we realise, there is much to learn from the above excerpts from the history books and Wikipedia.

First, we have many of our own –gates here in Mzansi. These include,

  • Nkandlagate
  • Nenegate
  • Eskomgate
  • Prasagate, and we even have our own spy tapes, to mention but a few.

Having established much similarity let’s have a closer look at who our President’s men indeed are.

  • Hlaudi
  • Ntlemeza
  • Abrahams
  • Nhleko
  • Moyane
  • Mdluli, to mention a few

Where does our President find his men? If there’s one thing the ANC has taught us it is that it has an abundance of competent men and women who can occupy most positions and adapt and learn fast so as to render a quality service to our people. Look at our much revered Finance Ministers over the last two decades, Trevor Manuel, Pravin Gordhan and Nhlanhla Nene. All of whom did not possess the requisite qualifications but applied themselves and demonstrated skill and competence beyond measure. One can also talk of so many others in the Mandela, Mbeki and Motlanthe cabinets but, oh no, not under the Zuma administration.

If his men are not lying about their qualifications, or if a court of law does not find them “not fit for the job”, they demonstrate sheer incompetence in executing their jobs. All the while they will each tell us that they are competent and the best man for the job, in fact they believe it to be so. I’m not sure whether they’re delusional or merely suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Now the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive incapacity, on the part of those with low ability, to recognise their ineptitude and evaluate their competence accurately.

The phenomenon was first observed in the case of McArthur Wheeler, a man who robbed two banks after covering his face with lemon juice in the mistaken belief that, because lemon juice is usable as invisible ink, it would prevent his face from being recorded on surveillance cameras. They noted that ignorance of standards of performance lies behind a great deal of incorrect self-assessment of competence.

Dunning and Kruger further proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

  • Fail to recognise their own lack of skill;
  • Fail to recognise the extent of their inadequacy ;
  • Fail to accurately gauge skill in others;
  • Recognise and acknowledge their own lack of skill only after they are exposed to training for that skill.

Does this effect not remind you of the President’s Men?

Either way, they do not measure up against the former cadres of the movement. Instead, they fight in our courts to keep their jobs, they lie and influence respective boards to secure their jobs, and they cajole and interdict to stay. They have no shame, and because they are the President’s Men, they think they’re above reproach.

If indeed some of them can read, it would benefit them to familiarise themselves with the rhyme…

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

humpty dumpty had a great fall

All the king’s horses and all the King’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again”

When your President falls, you too will fall.

The one man out of the rest of them that can still redeem himself is Abrahams, but time is running out, my friend.

It would do you good to take stock of the exemplary behaviour demonstrated by our Chief Justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng. After the President snubbed the then Deputy Chief Justice (Moseneke) by not appointing him to the Chief Justice position, everyone was convinced that his choice, Judge Mogoeng Mogoeng, was going to be just another puppet of the President. But Mogoeng decided to go back to his village, follow his instincts and to consult with the elders there, and what they said to him was that he is filling some very big shoes – those of predecessors such as Ismail Mahomed, Arthur Chaskalson, Pius Langa and Sandile Ngcobo – and that he had an opportunity to be part of and indeed define history. Basically, they told him, you can choose to be a stooge for the President of the day or take your rightful place at the table of the Constitutional Court and protect and defend the Constitution of the Republic to the best of your ability.

We all know what Mogoeng decided to do after his return from the village. Exemplary indeed.

Where is your village, Abrahams? Which elders can you consult? Why don’t you also not do a Mogoeng? Surprise us all, my friend, and become what you were meant to be, a lawyer of repute who holds his oath of office above all and who will enforce the law without fear or favour. Be all you can be, Abrahams! For don’t be surprised, come June, next month, when the President appoints the now disgraced Adv. Jiba as your new boss and SAPS National Commissioner.

The outstanding matter of the 783 charges against the King/President will define you and be your mark in our history books, sir. This not withstanding the already fresh charges in the offing with regards to perjury and the dossier submitted by Pravin Gordhan as it relates to the suspicious transactions by the Gupta companies.

The latest bout between the Minister of Police, Fikile Mbalula, and Mthandazo Ntlemeza is another such example of how these men cling to the inevitable – well done, Mbalula, for sticking to your guns. After all, enforcing the law is your primary responsibility.

However, regardless of all these scandals and many (political) -gates, our President will not do the honourable thing like Nixon did and resign. He has however indicated that if the NEC of the ANC requested him to step down, he would obey the party’s wishes. So let us put our hope in the collective leadership of the ANC. The NEC is at a crossroads in our political landscape and such a decision cannot be an easy matter, but you and I know it is better to have hope in the NEC than in the National Legislature’s vote of no confidence.

As for the President’s men, it would be folly to think that with the downfall of the president you will be spared, good sirs. After all, as we have seen in the Watergate matter, several indictments and arrests followed after the resignation of the US president. And this President will have no compunction in throwing you under the bus for his own political expedience.

Rid yourselves from the Dunning-Kruger effect before it’s too late – history will judge you harshly. DM


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