Blatantly shocking

2014-04-10 00:00

I WAS handed the invoice for Durban’s R40 million bodyguarding bill in an Umgeni Park parking lot.

Five minutes later, there were hoots and yells behind my car as I waited at the traffic light outside Makro.

The four-page document was so blatantly shocking, even at a glance, that I couldn’t help trying to read it on my lap, and I missed the light change.

What has already been stated in the media was that about 20 ordinary councillors have been assigned their own full-time bodyguard, at the seemingly bizarre monthly cost of R71 000, plus a car and a driver.

The invoice itself from Sharks Protection Services revealed that the cost is even worse — that these ward councillors are getting three private-security officers, plus a leased car, at a cost to ratepayers of R129 272 each month, every month, for months and years on end.

This cost is five times what it costs to pay their entire salaries; surely the highest skills-to-threat ratio outside the FBI’s federal witness-protection programme.

The next shock was the names on the list —  these aren’t whistle-blowers who are bravely crusading for justice within powerful institutions. And most are not targets on a criminal hit list.

Instead, they mostly comprise ward politicians who have defected to another party in recent years, or representatives who have angered informal-settlement communities by supporting eviction orders, or councillors involved with disputes with other councillors, or — incredibly — councillors who were recently acquitted on charges of politically motivated murders.

The justification for their full-time private protection implies that ordinary South African voters will suddenly turn into murderers if a councillor dares to show up at a certain meeting, or exercises his or her right to switch parties. The eThekwini Municipality tells us, in this gigantic security contract, that it fears its own citizens.

But what caused me to hold up traffic on Umgeni Road was the fact that the protection for all 20 councillors is exactly the same — the identical, maximum, unprecedented protection. Whether it is ANC councillor Siphiwe Lubhede from Ward 37, NFP PR councillor Bhungu Gwala, or Alliam Dlamini from Ward 91, they all get 93 security officer shifts per month and a car, for precisely the same cost. First of all, this tells us the SAPS crime intelligence “threat analysis” done on each councillor was inadequate, as it’s impossible for the threats and solutions to be the same for even two of those 20.

Any close-protection expert will tell you that threats differ greatly for each client, and the threat level changes on a weekly basis. And solutions range from static guards and home-security revamps to escorts to risky meetings and, in extreme cases, full-time bodyguards.

Meanwhile, as KZN violence Monitor Mary de Haas pointed out to me: “If the SAPS think these councillors are under such dramatic threat to their lives, then what on Earth are they, as the police, doing to solve the problem? This bodyguard spending is nonsense.”

And, rather than doing weekly reviews, council speaker Logie Naidoo told me their package is reviewed only once every six months. Naidoo is a widely respected councillor with a good record, but his reasonable-sounding explanation exposes a broader problem with decision-making in South Africa: “But imagine if we denied someone this protection and then something happened?”

It seems that it hasn’t occurred to Durban’s well-intentioned decision-makers that granting protection for the 20 councillors means denying protection for thousands of their equally vulnerable constituents. That’s because 250 Metro police officers could be hired for R40 million, and their members could protect councillors for R15 000 a month.

We see this more-is-more security mentality everywhere in South African public life, and most famously at Nkandla: well, we’ve taken care of the president’s protection from direct threats, but wouldn’t the president’s family be more secure from earthquakes, fires and invasions as well if we just spend these extra tens of millions? After all, government security guys agree it would add to their safety. We saw it this week, when the Department of Justice asked itself: would it be more secure for Shrien Dewani and passengers if we hired a private plane for R3 million to fly him here? And answered: yes.

The fact that people who are extradited to face criminal charges routinely travel by commercial aircraft, to virtually no ill-effect, lost the argument, if it was considered at all. Presumably, none of these decision-makers asked if these massively expensive measures are proportionate or reasonable, and none feels the run-away millions spent in taxpayers’ money is any reason to strike a balance.

It’s time that public officials are made to recall that every cent spent on themselves is money diverted from the people they represent. And it’s time for those holding the purse strings to start saying: “No”.

• Rowan Philp is chief reporter at The Witness.

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