Politicians' cars are too expensive

2009-09-08 00:00

IN its code of ethics, the Society of Professional Journalists asserts that: “Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information”.

Perhaps due to a number of reasons, including personal prejudices, lack of training as well as power dynamics, one observes more and more that some of our journalists fall far too short when it comes to interpreting information and contextualising it before they present it for public consumption.

Our media have been full of stories depicting senior government officials, MECs and ministers as splurging out on “expensive” lifestyles, while the rest of the population is wriggling under the yoke of the recession.

This, on its own, is not wrong. Indeed, the media should be fearless in exposing wrongdoing, even if such perpetrators are senior government officials. What has been a worrying trend, unfortunately, is the unbridled sensationalism of the so-called acts of excessive spending by government.

Every other day, the public is told of a minister who has frittered away a fortune on a vehicle. The following day we hear of MECs who sleep in expensive hotels when, according to the journalist, they could have slept at far cheaper ones and “saved oodles” of taxpayers’ money. Contained in these “exposés” are figures that, unfortunately, are not explained to the public, but are used to show the extent of the “profligate spending”.

We need to contextualise the issues.

South Africa is in an envious position because its government enjoys a legitimacy that comes with being democratically elected. Ministers, MECs and councillors are entrusted with the task of leading our citizens towards a South Afri­ca that is characterised by peace, prosperity and equality. This is no small task, particularly considering that a mere 15 years back, there was no democratic state to talk of.

This task becomes doubly-challenging in difficult times, such as the current global economic recession. It is precisely because the recession makes investors and lenders get cold feet, that it becomes the responsibility of the government to fill the gap because, unlike the private sector, the government is constitutionally obliged to, for example, deliver basic services. It can be argued that while banks are the culprits for plunging the world into the biggest financial crisis of our time by dabbling in toxic lending practices, it is the world’s governments that now have to clean up the mess.

It is through the sound policies of the state, most of which were viciously criticised by some in the private sector (such as the National Credit Act) that South Africa is not worse off than it is. It was also the initiative of the government to urge its departments to be circumspect when spending money. However, this does not mean that government work can grind to a screeching halt.

The reality is that those who should have known better, kept quiet when there was uncontrolled and reckless extension of credit to individuals who clearly could not afford to service their debt. It is strange that those who have appointed themselves as recession police, concentrating on government departments, have yet to inform the public of the recklessness of those who were chasing a quick buck. It is this unfair and selective journalism that is worrying.

The frenzied reporting around the issue of cars and spending misses the point. A simple analysis of the objective working conditions and individual circumstances of the officials would ensure that some of the so-called “exposés” are stillborn. The transport needs of a national minister who would normally travel from their home to the office and, perhaps, the airport would obviously be different from the needs of an MEC who services a largely rural province with mostly inaccessible roads.

The current practice by some journalists of just collecting figures, subjecting them to “bush-analysis” and then presenting the results of that misanalysis as facts, needs to stop.

The government has an obligation to function and, particularly, to navigate the country out of this economic morass. This will not come cheaply. In the United States, it costs about a trillion dollars. In comparison, our government has done exceptionally well in cushioning the South African taxpayer from the effects of the economic downturn. The media need to start acting responsibly and being fair in reporting during this very difficult time, instead of this alarmist posture they have taken.

• Makhosi Khoza is a Provincial Executive Committee member of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal.

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