Have we become too grand?

I am not great at protocol or fine-dining habits. This is probably why I still don’t know which knife to use for which course and regularly grab the wrong one at fancy lunches.

My fingers are my most comfortable eating implements and I look forward to the society where we sit around and share communally again.

Last year, I came to near blows with Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool’s burly “protocol officer” (can you believe the nonsense we spend money on?) when he tried to explain why it was against every rule in the P-book that his man should speak after Finance Minister Trevor Manuel.

Apparently, provincial bigwigs may only speak before national ministers because they have the biggest wigs.

Then there’s the phenomenon of “holding rooms”, the ridiculous places where they store VIPs before they make grand entrances. Whatever happened to mixing with the masses, never mind being of the masses?

Don’t even get me started on cavalcades, the long black snake of gleaming sedans with blue lights, which bully their cargo through the traffic jams mere mortals sweat through. Poppycock.

All of which is why I disagree with my colleague Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya who recently sprang to the defence of University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg’s R5-million new home in the making. We must, he wrote, pay for our brains. Of course we should.

I am all for pretty things and comfortable homes and, especially, for paying our brains properly; it’s the cult of the VIP that has grafted itself on to the former people’s republic that is so gross.

Here’s a salutary tale. Last year I was invited to give a public lecture at Rhodes University. I am a retiring sort, so was quite happy to do my talk and then go to one of the quaint B&Bs that dot the university town.

But vice-chancellor Saleem Badat’s office called to say that I should stay at his home. There is a connection, as Saleem is a friend of my brother’s, while Shireen, his wife, is the sister of my friend and former colleague Rehana Rossouw.

I was nervous of the pomp I expected. I would have to dress fancy and talk posh. And not snore. And those knives and forks! What would I do with them?

My lift pulled into the VC’s residence and a friendly dog came out to greet me. Shireen came to the door in jeans. She made me tea (herself) and we went to sit in the garden with Saleem on old, but comfortable, garden chairs. He had made his own tea and a sandwich. There was no bevy of servants on call, though it is the official residence. Then he walked back to work, as the couple share a car.

The Badat house in Grahamstown is rambling and homely; it feels lived-in and warm. Photographs dot the walls. The cherry-wood floors gleam and the couple do a lot of entertaining, both personal and professional. It doesn’t look unlike the home that Rensburg will shortly vacate for his new confection. And it’s perfectly good.

The next morning, I happily fixed my own breakfast and was off home. This is not a story to compare VCs or to cast aspersion on Rensburg’s choices, but to point to a humility and spirit of service in public life that is growing all too rare.

Badat also took a hefty cut in salary, putting the saved funds into supporting a number of student bursaries in the name of his political mentor, Jakes Gerwel.

Remember the days when, as inaugural transport minister, Mac Maharaj insisted that he would continue to drive his beat-up old Jetta? It struck a chord, for it spoke of a government that would live comfortably yet simply.

Those days died quickly as the new democrats dusted off old protocol books designed for a venal order. These systems are designed to keep leadership a cut above the people, not as servants of the citizen.

Constitutional principles surely deem that opulent public life is out of sync with our values of equality and dignity. Instead, dignity has come to be associated with the accumulation of wealth, the concept hijacked by a tiny elite when in fact its remit is much simpler: to lift up the downtrodden.

The world of flunkies, bodyguards, consultants and advisers has yanked government out of earshot of the rest of us.

Which is why Cabinet members looked so very crestfallen and shocked when almost none of them made it back on to the national executive committee of the ANC at Polokwane.

The din of governance bling, be it in the academies or the public sector, can deafen you to the voices you really need to listen to.

Ferial Haffajee is the editor of the Mail & Guardian

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