Echoes of DRC’s Mobutu in KZN

2012-10-13 12:10

Have the grandiose designs of a dictator not, at the very least, provided a model from which to veer away?

The village of Gbadolite in Zaïre was just a simple, rural backwater. But it was dramatically transformed after one of its sons, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, became president following a coup in 1965, and became better known as Mobutu Sese Seko.

By the time he was finally deposed through a popular uprising led by Laurent Kabila in 1997, Gbadolite had – among one of its many state-of-the-art amenities – an airport with a runway long enough to accommodate an aircraft as large as a Concorde.

The village had, through the years, earned the somewhat dubious title of “Versailles of the jungle” owing to the three luxurious castles built with public money for Mobutu’s personal use.

Added to this were other nice-to-haves, including a nuclear bomb-proof bunker that could accommodate more than 500 people and was reputed to be the largest in Africa.

Mobutu also built a state-of-the-art hospital and a college in his home village, something he failed to extend to the rest of his vast central African country.

All these, by the way, were paid for through the sweat and blood of the Zaïrian people and from proceeds earned from the country’s vast mineral wealth.

And while Mobutu lived large in his palaces and chartered flights for exorbitant shopping sprees abroad, his people waged a daily struggle for survival.

The country faced mounting problems, including poor access to healthcare, a lack of critical infrastructure, few jobs and little development.

Mobutu was not alone in the shameful practice of using taxpayers’ money to live in luxury, and in transforming his rural village into a city.

He was part of a band of looters of his generation – men who, upon assuming power, looted state coffers to benefit themselves, their families and close friends.

Omar Bongo, the president of Gabon, splashed out on a R14 billion railway line to his village, Franceville.

There was also Ivory Coast strongman Félix Houphouët-Boigny who replicated what Mobutu did at Gbadolite at his birthplace of Yamoussoukro.

These were men from a generation that assumed power at a time when European colonialism was being swept away by Harold Macmillan’s proverbial “winds of change”.

Fast forward to 2012, and developments in President Jacob Zuma’s village of Nkandla have raised eyebrows about whether we are returning to this dark episode of our continent’s history.

The taxpayer is set to carry a colossal R238 million bill for the upgrading of Zuma’s palatial homestead.

Zuma, like all of us, deserves to live in comfort with his family. But why, one wonders, should taxpayers fork out for his excesses?

Taxpayers are forking out for such luxuries as Astroturf-clad sports fields, underground bunkers, a private family clinic and two helipads.

What is even more worrying is government’s response to City Press’ expose on the development.

Instead of explaining why all this is necessary, Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi announced that he’s launching an investigation into how the newspaper obtained the “top secret” information.

Mobutu and his generation of looting dictators dealt less than magnanimously with those who dared to expose their abuse of state funds.

We haven’t reached that stage yet – and hopefully we won’t – where journalists are detained, or simply disappear, for exposing abuse of state coffers.

One of the reasons Mobutu’s generation managed to transform themselves into untouchable demigods who accounted to no one was because they forced the citizens and the media into a fearful silence.

If the reported R238 million tab to be picked up by the taxpayer is incorrect, then Nxesi and his comrades should disclose the truth.

Keeping mum and threatening to sniff out whistle-blowers only heightens public suspicion.

Former president Nelson Mandela set our country on the path to becoming a good example in true, selfless and moral leadership during his five-year term.

But the same cannot be said of Zuma’s term, which still has two years to go.

Depending on what happens at the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December and in the 2014 general election, we may still have him in office for much longer.

I wonder if the founding fathers of the ANC – such as John Langalibalele Dube, who used his influence to empower those around him by building a school and initiating community projects for the benefit of his people – would approve of this reckless use of taxpayers’ money.

Would Sol Plaatje who, at great personal cost, selflessly travelled the length and breadth of the country educating the people about the injustices of the 1913 Land Act, sing Zuma’s praises for following in the steps of Mobutu?

Had he been alive, perhaps even Mobutu, who would have turned 82 today, would have frowned upon the Nkandla developments.

He has been dead and buried in Morocco since 1997, but future generations will always refer to his more than 30 years in office as an example of how not to use taxpayers’ money.

I wonder how history will judge Zuma and his use of state resources on his luxurious home. Instead of trying to find the whistle-blower, perhaps he would do well to follow the example of President Joyce Banda of Malawi.

She recently declared that she was taking a 30% salary cut to show she could also make sacrifices as part of her government’s austerity measures.

The move was criticised in some quarters as a drop in the ocean given how much she and her government spend on travel and other things they could possibly do without.

However, it could be argued that it speaks volumes about the morality of the president of a country whose citizens are struggling in tough economic times.

Banda’s move is similar to the radical changes made by Thomas Sankara, the inspirational leader of Burkina Faso, after he took office in 1983.

He drastically reduced his salary, forced civil servants to pay one month’s wages to public projects and sold off the government’s fleet of luxury Mercedes-Benzes, opting for smaller, more economical cars.

There are lessons to be learnt from Sankara, but there are even more to learn from the Mobutus, the Bongos, the Mubaraks and the Ben Alis of our past.

One is that not even bunkers can stop the poor from rising up when they’ve had enough of carrying the ruling elite on their overworked backs.

Happy birthday, Mobutu, your legacy lives on.

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