The Many Faces of Eusebius McKaiser

Thirteen years ago I resolved to write a very critical article about Eusebius McKaiser.

The political persona he was constructing in South Africa was very different, almost opposite, to the one of the Eusebius McKaiser I had encountered in Oxford in the United Kingdom where we were both studying. In Oxford, McKaiser publicly and loudly endorsed the invitation (platforming) of an actual fascist, the leader of the ‘British National Party’, to the debating club known as the Oxford Union. In doing so he also leveraged his racial identity to bolster a weak argument, while conveniently ignoring the fact that his extreme privileges (a Rhodes Scholar in the University of Oxford community) would likely protect him from the consequences – unlike working class black and ‘brown’ people in the vicinity.

Yet when I returned to South Africa a few years later I discovered that McKaiser had reinvented himself as a supposed radical anti-racist. This, it later turned out, was after a stint at McKinsey where he had found himself just another smart, overly ambitious, highly self-regarding individual in a corporate machine filled with such characters. (Some of whom would later go on to happily take consulting money to undermine the country’s democracy). He had political aspirations but his most obvious political home, the Democratic Alliance, did not embrace him with open arms the way some of his Rhodes Scholar peers parachuted into political positions in their home countries. Facing these obstacles but determined to be ‘famous’, happy to leverage any and all cronyistic networks at his disposal, or that he could create, he chose the identity that seemed most likely to serve his agenda. On a rare occasion one public commentator referred to the relationship between McKaiser and journalist Karima Brown as ‘generally corrupt’; a gesture at what was arguably the tip of an iceberg.

Well, in fact McKaiser chose to don multiple faces, depending on the audience. And this, I would suggest, is what explains the apparent paradox that McKaiser had many white friends who I will politely call ‘not-antiracist’, whose patronage he benefitted from extensively while at the same time social media reactions are revealing that many other white South Africans think he hated white people. Among McKaiser’s white conservative-leaning patrons was Peter Bruce. Bruce apparently helped secure McKaiser a column at Business Day when he was starting out on his path to fame. Whatever McKaiser may have ‘deserved’ in return for his abilities, I suspect an objective analysis would find that patronage networks of various kinds lay behind a great deal of what he did. Unfortunately, because he was almost never challenged on it, he never explained how that was consistent with the loudly principled positions he took about the conduct of others.

Back to 2010. I mentioned the intention to write the article to a mutual friend who pleaded with me not to do it. And I didn’t. Many times over the years I regretted that decision as I watched McKaiser behave disingenuously again and again, while honing the art of his disingenuousness more and more. On the occasions where I seriously considered remedying my mistake there was usually one of McKaiser’s friends in my ear saying that I should not write it. Not being short of other things to do, I repeatedly put it aside. McKaiser himself, having caught wind of my low opinion of him, reached out to me three times – always through intermediaries. One of these times was supposedly because he wanted me on his show to discuss economics and economic policy. Using his platforms to soften critics and generate arrangements of mutual benefit – known as cronyism in other contexts – appeared to be one of his specialties and a number of tributes reflect the success of that strategy.

The first two times I said I was happy to engage but we would need to have a frank discussion about why I held such a negative view of him. I was unsurprised when he did not follow up. The third time I was also asked if I could explain to the intermediary what my concerns were: I declined because I had learned from experiences with other Eusebius-type personalities that telling them your concerns just allowed them to change their performances to be less vulnerable to criticisms in future without actually addressing the substance of the issues. I had no intention of helping McKaiser polish his act further.

The irony of these friends, and McKaiser himself, trying to discourage criticism of a man who had built, and would go on to build, an entire public profile and career on criticising other public figures appears to have been lost on those involved. But then one thing that characterises a number of circles McKaiser moved in, or created, was a double-standard that is so deeply held there was no sense it even needed to be justified. He was not alone in that practice and appears to have done a remarkable job of finding fellow travellers. A major reason why McKaiser sought to control the mic is because it meant he could avoid situations where he might be too exposed. Debating skills help you win an argument for a position you might not believe in, in 5 minutes: but if it goes on longer than that you could be in trouble. So it helps to have control over who gets to talk, how long for, about what, and then get the last word. Contrary to the narrative that McKaiser was a fearless debater, my observation over more than a decade is that he went out of his way to make sure he was never on a neutral platform with someone more intelligent or insightful who disagreed with him and wasn’t within one of his networks.

With McKaiser’s tragically premature death, my concerns about what I consider to be his disingenuous, even manipulative, public performances have been reignited. Yet I have still been reluctant to write about someone who is now deceased, and of course cannot reply. McKaiser and I also shared many friends and acquaintances. But the gushing tributes from highly influential figures and publications have helped to dissolve my concern about this. If McKaiser was indeed a ‘giant’ who ‘fundamentally contributed to the public narrative’ in South Africa, if he was the country’s ‘foremost public intellectual’, then he is clearly an important public figure who should be exposed to the same kind of frank assessment as those he himself excoriated.

So much for the preamble, then: more to follow.

Author: peripheral economist

Academic, extra-mural public servant

3 thoughts on “The Many Faces of Eusebius McKaiser”

  1. I love this no holds barred “dissenting” view. As a Black woman, I found his coon/uncle Tom behaviour (reminiscent of Apartheid era) a little too nauseating. Thank you for using your platform for good.

  2. I look forward to the next piece, since the preamble hasn’t done much more than communicate to me that you don’t like McKaiser and might have some dirt / insight into his disingenuous performances. Lacking in concrete substance, but fair enough, the preamble certainly sets the scene…

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