/ 18 November 2011

Here’s why we care about politicians’ sex lives

Whatever will the Italians talk about now, now that their randy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has finally left the building? What will occupy the chattering classes of Milan and Rome, with his bunga bunga parties surely a thing of the past? I suppose they now have more pressing matters to talk about, like how on earth to get out the deep vortex that is the country’s debt.

I find it interesting that Berlusconi’s numerous sex scandals and his horribly degenerate and politically incorrect utterances were not enough to bring about his downfall. No, it was the money, honey.

Sex. Politics. Power … Inextricably interwoven themes since time immemorial. Our local politicians have not escaped this tangled web. It always seems easier to scoff and point fingers at philandering political leaders who are miles away. But when it is in your own backyard, it’s just … well, nasty. Cringeworthy. Eeuw! Not to suggest that our politicians should be holier-than-thou.

Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula took centre stage a fortnight ago over his burst-condom incident with a model. A week later it was the turn of Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba to grab the headlines, in has case for his alleged dalliance with a married woman.

The cuckolded husband now wants the minister to pay for his broken heart and home — to the tune of R1.7-million. Gigaba is alleged to have dispatched his aide Makhosini Nkosi to make amends. Why couldn’t he do it himself?

Illicit sex has been the downfall of many a politician. But is it really any of our business? Surely what happens between the sheets between two consenting adults is none of our business. That’s how it ought to be.

Why do we care?
We all titter and laugh or squirm with embarrassment when these allegations are reported but, beyond the gossipy element, why do they dominate public discourse so much? Why do we even care? Men in power will do as they wish with that authority and we must just leave them be right?

The truth is that once the giggles at someone else’s expense have subsided we are left feeling a little bit disheartened and disappointed in our public officials.

It reflects upon the credibility of those public officials. That credibility extends to whether we believe or trust what our leaders say. Take both ministers embroiled in the current scandals. I’m quite fond of both of them.

Fikile “Razzmatazz” Mbalula has tackled each portfolio he has been given with enthusiasm, ability and vigour. He faces daunting tasks, such as cleaning up the rot in South African cricket, head-on. He is also such an enigmatic orator that you can’t help but listen to him.

Similarly, Gigaba has proven himself in both portfolios he has taken on since coming into government. As deputy minister of home affairs, he was instrumental is driving the documentation process of Zimbabweans in the country, and now he’s at the helm of the crucial public-enterprises ministry. He will be central to driving economic growth through the state-owned enterprises he oversees.

Being caught with their pants down, as it were, doesn’t mean that these two officials will be less capable of doing their jobs. It is how we view them that has now been coloured by their behaviour. They are sending confusing messages about one of the most pressing challenges we face in this country — HIV/Aids. That’s not personal, it’s deeply political.

There is an obvious hypocrisy in preaching a policy of not having multiple sexual partners in the fight against HIV/Aids and then practicing the exact opposite. It makes a mockery of otherwise very noble and valuable campaigns touted by the health department and concerned NGOs.

Leaders ought to lead by example. The lack of probity when it comes to how they handle their sexual affairs has started to erode our sense of trust in them. That, for me, is at the core of why these scandals can be damaging. Yes, apologies are made and the public forgives — but we just don’t believe in you in the way in we used to. That is not a judgment but reality.

This sort of thing also detracts from important work the state is doing. For instance, Gigaba signed a multibillion-rand loan for the country’s renewable-energy needs on Monday, but all one kept wondering was whether he would cave in to the jilted husband’s legal challenge and pay up the R1.7-million. Gigaba, who is usually poised and confident, appeared visibly strained.

Likewise, Mbalula, while he was announcing the terms of reference of the cricket probe, we were wondering what the real deal was behind the story of the condom and the baby. He admitted, in a television interview on e-news, that he was embarrassed about being forced into having to talk about sex when, in fact, as minister of sport he should be focusing on crises in sport.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Please keep it zipped. It’s not that any of us believe you lead the lives of monks, just be mindful of the burden you carry as public officials.