Tough lessons from a great son of the soil

2011-10-22 10:15

It is mind boggling that the mayor of a poor rural municipality in Limpopo – where some are forced to share drinking water with animals – can even think of splashing out more than a million rand of taxpayers’ money on a luxury car for his official use.

A country like ours, which has just come out of many decades where development for the majority of its citizens was virtually non-existent, cannot afford to waste money on bling.

Our public officials can learn from Thomas Sankara’s legacy of eradicating the culture of excessive use of public coffers.

Now I wonder how Sankara would have reacted to reports that the Sekhukhune district municipality mayor, David Magabe, authorised the spending of R1.3 million for the purchase of a Mercedes-Benz ML500 and an escort vehicle.

What, I wonder, would Sankara have made of reports that the cash-strapped Mhlontlo municipality in Eastern Cape paid more than R100 000 to hire a Mercedes-Benz SUV with a V8 engine, rear-seat entertainment and tinted windows for mayor Thandekile Sabiso when they could have in fact paid a mere R3 765 to service the existing mayoral car.

Perhaps last Friday, on the eve of the anniversary of his execution, Sankara turned in his grave when Public Protector Thuli Madonsela released her findings on her investigation into allegations of a breach of the executive ethics code by Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Sicelo Shiceka.

Some of Madonsela’s findings are that Shiceka spent R546 864 of taxpayers’ money to visit his girlfriend, who is doing time in a Swiss prison for dealing in narcotics.

Madonsela also found Shiceka spent a further R280 716 at the luxury One&Only Hotel in Cape Town, when staying in an official ministerial residence would have saved the taxpayer.

What can our country and its leaders learn from Sankara?

The main lesson, perhaps, is that public officials should remember they hold office to serve the electorate, not to indulge in bling and pomp at the expense of the public purse.

They should use their power and influence to advance the cause of development.

They are, and should remain, servants of the people and not leeches whose sole aim is to suck the lifeblood out of the taxpayer.

And these, the selfless Sankara demonstrated in the sweeping, radical changes he brought about shortly after coming to power as president of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) in 1983.

One of his first eyebrow-raising moves was to reduce his salary to the equivalent of R2 800 a month, while forcing civil servants to pay one month’s salary to public projects.

He went a step further by refusing to use the air conditioning in his office on the grounds that most Burkinabe had no such luxury.

And then he sold off the government’s fleet of luxury Mercedes-Benzes, and made the Renault 5 (then almost the equivalent of a Toyota Tazz) the official service car for ministers.

He reduced the salaries of all public servants, including his own, and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and first-class air tickets.

Sankara’s radical hand also struck at the feudal landlords when he gave the land under their authority to peasants, bringing to an end the abusive practice in which the poor were required to provide free labour to tribal chiefs and rich landowners.

While these changes endeared Sankara to the poor in his country and way beyond its borders, they made him an enemy of those who sought to loot the public purse.

This led to his eventual ouster, capture and execution by forces opposed to these changes that stood in the way of their lust for power.

But a week before he was executed, Sankara apparently declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”

I’m not suggesting that ministers and mayors should travel in beat-up minibus taxis, it is my humble view that by doing away with the opulence of expensive German sedans and spending money on teams of bodyguards that sometimes outnumber rugby squads, we would begin to save money and channel it towards noble causes such as providing basic services to the electorate.

For now, our focus should be on poverty eradication and development, not luxury cars and hotels, which play no role in advancing the cause of the poor.

Hopefully Sankara’s ideas will help rid us of the wasteful tendencies of the Shicekas of this world.

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