Prince Mashele

Of ministers and flamboyance

2009-11-16 13:08

Many have recently condemned ministers who buy flashy cars at our expense, but few have written to explain why these flamboyant ministers behave the way they do. Fewer still have been able to make sense of how the behaviour of the ministers contributes to the disintegration of our social fabric.

Interestingly, the logic behind the flamboyance of our ministers was well explained back in 1899 in a book by Thorstein Veblen entitled The Theory of the Leisure Class. Members of the leisure class prefer society to know and see that they drive very expensive cars, wear very expensive cloths, and consume very expensive food. This is what Veblen calls "conspicuous consumption".

But why do our ministers prefer such expensive goods. Veblen explains: "Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit".

Thus, a minister who blows R500 000 at a Cape Town hotel does so informed by the very logic of conspicuous consumption. It is this logic that whispers to the minister that squandering public funds like that is an honorific act, and that saving public funds would be a mark of inferiority and demerit on his part.

Some may ask if ministers perforce cannot be driven in cheaper cars, and if less expensive cars are inherently incapable of serving security purposes similar to those served by pricier vehicles. To raise this question is to ignore the very logic of conspicuous consumption. While a 5 Series BMW can certainly be as secure as a 7 Series, our ministers deliberately choose more expensive cars in order for them to gain reputability.

Consumption circles

Conspicuous consumption is a form of behaviour whose lure is more powerful than ideological convictions. Once you become a minister, and ipso facto a member of the leisure class, it becomes difficult to resist the pampering circles that conspicuous consumption constructs around you.

So powerful is conspicuous consumption that, on becoming a minister, a leader of a communist party becomes the first to purchase the most expensive of cars. Given that the generality of socialist thinkers are sharp intellectually, they are indeed capable of twisting Hegel's Phenomenology, Marx's Capital or Lenin's What is to be Done to explain why it is a "revolutionary imperative" for them to drive an X5, not a 5 or 3 Series MBW.

As members of the leisure class, ministers get sucked into consumption circles with established cannons of behaviour. In such circles, the concept of reputability assumes the form of appearance and behavioural etiquette. The more expensive the whisky you drink, the more seriously you are considered; the more expensive the suit you wear; the more dignified you are classed.

In circles where conspicuous consumption reigns supreme, an unintelligent minister driving a big German car is more respected than a modestly-dressed university professor who has superior knowledge of the minister's portfolio. In such a world, appearance is more important than depth. This is why some of our ministers spend time practicing the art of empty rhetoric instead of improving their technical knowledge on important subjects.

Ministers who are obsessed with appearance do not aspire to be knowledgeable, they wear a veil of knowledge. We have all listened to or seen such ministers on radio or television and wondered: what exactly are they talking about? They use big words inappropriately to express simple ideas. Such words and phrases as "strategic", "in the context of", "reactionary", "revolutionary", "neoliberal" are misused not infrequently.

How, then, must we understand the link between the conspicuous consumption of our ministers and the disintegration of South Africa’s social fabric?

Leisure class

Conspicuous consumption corrodes social values. It creates a value system that teaches our youth that the consumption of more expensive things and the driving of big cars is a mark of respectability. He who spends R500 000 a day in a hotel becomes he who is admired the most.

Standing at the head of our governance architecture, ministers become the conspicuous examples of the leisure class. Through the cars they drive, they communicate a message to young children that cars are honorific, and that materialism the highest form of social progress.

Thorstein Veblen is very helpful in understanding how, as ambassadors of the leisure class, the ministers who buy expensive cars impurify culture in society: "The result is that the members of each stratum accepts as their ideal of decency the scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum, and bend their energies to live up to that ideal."  Indeed, our youth look up to the ministers as the Alfa and Omega of social values, and wish to be like them: drive very expensive cars.

Within communities, conspicuous consumption can also breed criminals. We all know of youths in townships who, due to a rampant culture of materialism, join criminal gangs as means of securing money to purchase flashy cars similar to the ones bought by our flamboyant ministers. The question, therefore, arises: should a minister who blows R500 000 on a hotel stay be taken seriously by members of criminal gangs when he tells them not to do crime?

In turn, flashy cars driven by members of gangs send a message to other youths that there are shortcuts to a big car, and to a swanky lifestyle. Because political leaders are also seen as people who visibly hanker for very expensive cars, cars become a fetish. Thus, politicians cannot utter a word to stem such a culture since they are themselves ambassadors of conspicuous consumption.

The ostentatious behaviour of the ministers does get emulated by leaders at lower levels of our system of government. At municipal level, there are councillors who follow in the footsteps of our flamboyant ministers. They also enter the race for acquiring expensive cars to demonstrate that they, too, are as honorific as the ministers.

That corruption is ubiquitous in local government is something we all know. It is also not a stretch to deduct that there is a relationship between corruption and the prevalence of a culture of conspicuous consumption in our society. When councillors and officials cannot afford the expensive goods enjoyed by their fellow members in the leisure class, they employ underhand means to secure such goods.

Artificially elevated conception

Given that councillors work and live very close to the poor, the repugnance of their conspicuous consumption does not take long to offend communities. Ordinary people wonder how these councillors have became affluent in a short space of time. Thus is how social resentment gets fermented, and how councillors and mayors are rendered vulnerable to physical attacks by communities as soon as there is reason for public grievance. Through conspicuous consumption, politicians unwittingly participate in their very own delegitimisation.

Having now explained why the ministers behave the way they do, and what ramifications does their collective behaviour induce, we then need to ask if being a minister necessarily means that you cannot lead a materially modest life.

The ignorant among us would be quick to suggest that ministers all over the world visibly enjoy affluence. But those who have been exposed to the external world would know well that in such parts of the world as Scandinavia, for example, it is not uncommon to meet a minister riding a bicycle to a cabinet meeting or a parliamentarian cycling to an important national debate in parliament. Informed South Africans would further tell real stories, elsewhere in the world, of sitting side by side with senior politicians on public trains going wherever they were going. In countries where this happens, a minister is a human being who is not promoted to the exalted spaces occupied by the ambassadors of conspicuous consumption here at home.

The problem in our country is that we have adopted an artificially elevated conception of a minister. It is a concept that is both harmful to society and to our ministers themselves. Once a person becomes a minister, they suddenly think that they dangle in the sky. While it is true, to say that a certain minister lacks knowledge is interpreted as disrespect.

Also owing to our very own problematic conception, we have come to accept the words "minister" and "insecurity" as synonymous, and thereby accepting that ministers must perforce be driven in expensive cars. How endangered would the life of minister for women, children and people with disability be? Or, what would justify a super expensive car for a minister for rural development?

When all their spurious explanations have been exhausted, truth confronts us: the flamboyant ministers are members of the leisure class, and use cars to solicit reputability. What our nation needs is an honest debate that exposes all the social dangers posed by ambassadors of conspicuous consumption.

- Mashele is Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research (www.politicsresearch.co.za) and a member of the Midrand Group.

*A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that a minister had spent R500 000 in one day at a Cape Town hotel.

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