How much is enough?

2014-07-29 06:45

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Leaders implicated in graft and state contracts have become the norm rather than the exception. Hennie van Vuuren addresses the buffalo in the room

Isn’t it remarkable how shifty politicians are tripped up by relatively small bribes? The fall from grace of a top politician is often linked to obvious examples of avarice and conflicting interests.

Think of former minister Dina Pule’s taste in expensive shoes, the then deputy president Jacob Zuma’s friendship with a jailed arms dealer, former communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda’s R55?million security contract and Tony Yengeni’s undeclared discount on a Mercedes-Benz.

Such money transgressions are often represented in a titillating manner, as if to suggest that they were stupid to be caught.

Have we normalised acts of corruption to the extent that public outrage is treated as gossipy scandal to be retold at funerals and tweeted into the echo chamber of public opinion?

This is not a lament about us as Africans and what seems to be our citizens’ eternal struggle against powerful politicians and their patronage networks. The problem is more complex.

Consider how we celebrate the notion of excessive wealth and the luxury it buys for a handful of people. We have chosen the suffocating embrace of this crude manifestation of capitalism.

Too many of us are like the man at the buffet table who returns for a third helping, his body dripping with sweat as it struggles to digest the excess. The question the waiter and staff in the kitchen are quietly thinking is: Does he really need any more?

When is enough enough? This week, City Press reveals that just more than a quarter of Cabinet members own companies.

This research is important as it suggests they may have exposed themselves to an offence in breaching the Executive Members’ Ethics Act in terms of undertaking paid work.

Far more worrying is a potential breach of the section of the act that bars ministers from “using their position or any information entrusted to them to enrich ?themselves or improperly benefit any other person”.

In short, how many ministers with access to sensitive information concerning state procurement have used their insider knowledge to benefit themselves and disadvantage ordinary people? We rely on investigative journalists, honest public officials and other good citizens to expose this.

It is inexplicable why ministers to whom we have entrusted enormous responsibility have failed to resign their directorships the moment the president tipped them for a Cabinet post.

Do our leaders believe we are naïve enough not to see the conflict of interest? We are left asking: If a salary of between R1.7?million and R2.4?million a year is insufficient, then what is enough?

However, such greed in the face of grinding poverty is not a characteristic of politicians (in government and opposition) alone, it is something that has been normalised by many among the country’s elite.

In so doing, we have also come to regard wealth as implying integrity. Should we be more forgiving of politicians who see a virtue in the “right” to accumulate wealth?

The Sunday Times publishes an annual list of the top 200 wealthiest South Africans. This is usually a feature listing the names of our most successful “sons” (they are almost all men).

We are told where they buy buffaloes and how they struggle to spend cash. Last year, the top 100 richest people in South Africa were reported to have a collective personal wealth of R198.6?billion?–?equivalent to more than 6% of GDP.

The truth is that their actual wealth is no doubt far higher given the extent of licit and illicit money flowing out of South Africa from the apartheid era until today.

The folks at the Sunday Times don’t get to count the piles of cash stashed away in tax havens such as Luxembourg, Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands.

Collectively, this is an extraordinary power elite, including billionaires such as Christo Wiese, the Ruperts, Cyril Ramaphosa, the Oppenheimers and Patrice Motsepe, who regularly vie for top position.

Instead of seeing this as a list of shame, given the daily suffering of many millions of South Africans, we celebrate them. They are doubly rewarded when we marvel at their somewhat piecemeal philanthropy.

The problem with money in our politics is that we think we can manage to control this issue in such a deeply unequal society. When Tokyo Sexwale or Ramaphosa came into office, blind trusts were proposed as a solution to manage the conflict of interest.

However, that is probably impossible to achieve given the sheer scale of these plutocrats’ investments.

We have also come to believe the fallacy that people who are independently wealthy are “rich enough to be insensitive to bribery”.

We believe the very wealthy can compartmentalise interests that poor people would supposedly fail to do. Are we to believe that the rich and the poor are wired differently?

It was the famously corrupt billionaire, former Italian president Silvio Berlusconi, who summed up the intellectual contradiction of many superwealthy politicians: “We must fight against tax evasion but also defend the rights of tax evaders or companies that make mistakes.”

Almost a decade ago, I had a memorable discussion with Pravin Gordhan (then head of the SA Revenue Service) in which he warned against rash efforts to ban politicians’ business interests and radically toughen postemployment restrictions?–?“we will give politicians no other option”. I would argue we have given politicians not only the keys to the family silver, but far too many options to make money.

Is it not time to take control of such a situation by making it clear that no elected or appointed official can own or hold a directorship in a company and we monitor the interests of their family in businesses that have dealings with government?

This ban should include all ministers, Members of Parliament and members of the provincial legislatures.

The status quo is clearly not working. Maybe we need a radical approach to how we view excessive private wealth and regulate public ethics.

Turning to the ministers who might read this column, I challenge you to release a statement next week announcing your resignation from all companies, an intention to sell off the companies you have a significant share in and a firm commitment to aggressively give away the vast majority of your wealth over a certain threshold (say R10?million?) in your lifetime.

This would be a genuine commitment to what President Zuma promises will be a radical transformation over the next five years. Lead us in questioning the notion that excessive wealth is acceptable.

We have had enough of the failure to manage the manifold transgressions of conflict of interest regulation. Wrestle the demon of money in politics before power is wrested away from you.

Van Vuuren is research associate with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, and a writer and activist.

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