“It was actually my idea,” said the former MEC, as we reminisced about his political heyday. It was the
second provincial government of the Northern Cape, elected in 1999.
“I said [that] when we drive into the township, it must be like the story of Jesus and Palm Sunday,” he said, describing that provincial government’s desire to impress its constituency.
This “triumphant entry”, the biblical account of Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem, roused the crowds waiting for him to joyous song and dance. They paved the way for Jesus with their clothes and palm leaves.
Some centuries later, as reported by the Mail & Guardian last week, North West health MEC Magome Masike used monies initially earmarked for the purchase of ambulances to buy a Mercedes-Benz worth nearly R1-million. He asked that the car be fitted with an additional step “for ease of alighting from the vehicle”.
But the year of our Lord 2014 has not been good to provincial politicians and their cars, and the desire to travel in vehicular luxury – to make a triumphant entry – seems to have permeated the government.
A series of unfortunate events and mechanical mishaps befell the official vehicles belonging to the Mpumalanga premier’s office. To remedy the situation, Premier David Mabuza’s office spent R5-million on three separate luxury vehicles, according to the Star. Provincial spokesperson Zibonele Mncwango said the cars were necessary because the premier’s security was at risk.
In January, the office of then North West premier Thandi Modise purchased a R1.3-million BMW. Again, the provincial government denied any wrongdoing.
Ministers and premiers are entitled to state-purchased vehicles worth 70% of their annual remuneration package, according to the ministerial handbook. It is this legalism that allows politicians to avoid ethical accountability for their displays of opulence.
But this was not always the case. Founding Cosatu secretary general Jay Naidoo was minister of communications during Nelson Mandela’s presidency. “I did not ask for a new car [when I became a minister],” Naidoo told the M&G. “The first car was a Toyota Camry. It was used. That was the last thing on our minds then. In fact Mandela recommended a salary cut, which we accepted.”
But that attitude has clearly changed and the reason is how the political system works in practice.
Political parties select politicians who will serve in Parliament or provincial legislatures, instead of voters electing their representatives directly, explained political analyst Mzoxolo Mpolase. This top-down system gives citizens less agency.
“The moral weight of decisions is not something the ANC government tends to consider, because an outdated ministerial handbook justifies the decision,” he said. “Sometimes the electorate does not know [the rules] and the world of politicians is quite cryptic and inaccessible to those who are governed. It becomes about supply-chain compliance rather than how it appears to the public.”
Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi said this is also because politicians know that in an electoral environment that remains relatively uncompetitive, their opulence will not cause them an electoral disadvantage. Politicians therefore do not need to be sensitive to perceptions about their spending.
Matshiqi said this opulence is a reflection of society. “In popular culture we celebrate bling,” he said. “It’s evident in what we watch on television. For example, consider a programme I call ‘Over-the-Top Billing’ …
“In the townships, even if you know ‘bra’ so-and-so is a drug dealer, you ignore it and you celebrate the fact that he owns an expensive car because that makes him a role model. People are valued for what they are and not what they do.”
But Naidoo said politicians need to set an example to restore faith in the parliamentary process.
“With one in three South Africans living on a social grant to stay out of absolute poverty, and considering the high levels of hunger and rising inequality, I think we need to rethink our priorities, which should be spending taxpayers’ money on the needs of citizens rather than politicians,” Naidoo said.
“There is a huge loss of trust that people have in Parliament and the democratic process. In our last election, let us not forget that 31-million had a right to vote. Only 25-million were registered and only 18-million voted. That’s close to 13-million who did not exercise the right to vote that many in our country sacrificed their lives to win.
“I think the message is clear. Public representatives need to win our trust again. How they conduct themselves is critical in restoring the sovereignty of Parliament,” Naidoo said.
“The first step is curtailing public expenditure [and] rejecting any attempt to have past parliamentary privileges like free flights. We did not ask for free flights in the first Cabinet under Mandela.
“Doing this will send a powerful signal to citizens that the political class is listening to the desperate pleas from our citizens,” Naidoo said.