The majority of South Africans are dirt-poor, writes William Gumede,
something which makes the country's leaders fondness for lavish living on public
money all the more unacceptable. President Jacob Zuma must instil a culture of
engagement with ordinary citizens among his officials, Gumede argues, one which
ends self-serving cronyism and sees public funds directed to those most in need.
Given the extreme poverty of the majority of ordinary South Africans, it is
an affront that political leaders elected after promising to change the lives of
the poor live in extraordinary opulence on public money. The majority of South
Africans are living in terrible poverty, without jobs, houses and food. They
have given the ANC (African National Congress) a mandate to lift them out of
grinding poverty as quickly as possible.
Given that the majority of South Africans are dirt-poor, our leaders must start
to live modestly. It was an eyesore to see that some political activists during
the past elections when campaigning in squatter camps were driving Hummers while
urging poverty-stricken people who do not know where their next meal will come
from to vote for them. This is really an insult to the majority of South
Africans struggling to make ends meet in these tough economic times.
Elected leaders are living the high life, Paris Hilton-like, on taxpayers’
money. It is easier for elected leaders living in a bubble of luxury to forget
about the poor. Jacob Zuma must change the culture of opulence so pervasive in
government. For starters, Zuma must ban extravagant ‘blue-light’ convoys, where
one minister is chartered in a large convoy of cars driving at break-neck speed
pushing other ordinary motorists and pedestrians off the road. The crowd of
security guards that surround ministers must be cut down to one per minister. It
is a disgrace that they are surrounded by so many bodyguards, while an ordinary
citizen in Soweto must face the brunt of daily crime, without bodyguards, or
responsive police, without the money to buy expensive private security.
Better still leaders must start to use public transport. Ken Livingstone, the
former mayor of London in the United Kingdom, took the bus and the train to work
and meetings every day. This also made him more accessible to ordinary citizens
who could in person vent their anger at him for a lack of delivery. If local
politicians take minibus taxis, trains and buses everyday, they will experience
first-hand the daily dance-of-death that ordinary citizens experience using
Leaders must also drive more humble cars. Imagine President Zuma decreeing that
all ANC-elected public officials should driving more humble official cars, say
cars costing under R50,000. Leaders must also live modestly. Elected leaders
must live in the constituency areas which they represent. This means if they
represent Soweto, they must live there. This will also ensure they are reminded
daily of the hardships and poverty of ordinary South Africans. This will also
make them immediately accessible to the ordinary citizens they claim to
Public elected officials must behave with more humility. Ministers must stand in
queues in shops like ordinary citizens. President Zuma must issue an instruction
that ministers should no longer be addressed with 'Your Excellency' or 'Your
Honorary'; instead the president should instruct all his ministers to address
ordinary citizens in this way. This should help install a culture of elected
officials who are there to serve citizens. There should be no jumping of queues
because the person is a minister or a 'VIP’.
Secondly, all VIP areas at public events that are funded by taxpayers must be
banned. Leaders must mingle with ordinary people. Furthermore, extravagant
parties for publicly-elected officials funded by taxpayers should be banned. So
too must the huge food banquets available at meetings of government officials.
This will save taxpayers huge amounts of money which can be redirected elsewhere
to poverty-alleviation projects.
Excessive bonuses in the public sector should be curtailed. Even worse, in many
state-owned companies executives give themselves performance bonuses, when they
have managed failing and loss-making institutions. This is also a golden
opportunity for President Zuma to bring accountability to South Africa’s
political system. Elected leaders who do not deliver must be fired, especially
if they are close allies and friends of the president. Under Mbeki, the most
incompetent deployees were never fired if they were slavishly loyal to the
president. Zuma’s proposal to open a direct line to him, where ordinary citizens
can complain about poor service-delivery, corruption and indifference is a good
idea. What matters is whether action will be taken against callous government
officials following complaints by ordinary citizens.