Dignity, not flashiness

2009-02-04 00:00

Yesterday, a feature article entitled “All the president’s expenses” outlined the reasons why Jacob Zuma is likely to become the most expensive president South Africa has ever had. Among other things were included references to the costs of prolonged litigation; to large numbers of flights, locally and abroad; to security; and to Zuma’s traditional polygamous lifestyle and the potentially onerous burden on taxpayers of keeping his extended family and educating his many children.

Of course, it must be remembered that the president is a country’s representative and so should be maintained in a style appropriate to the image that country desires to project to the world. However, it’s important that the image, while being one of dignity — even, perhaps, of subdued splendour — does not tip over into a lavishness that seems gaudily inappropriate. Besides, when a leader has too much power and too great a tendency to lead a flashy lifestyle at public expense, it’s bad for democracy: these, as witness those caricatures of excess, the late Idi Amin of Uganda and Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, are the trappings of despotism.

On the other hand, a young democracy such as our own is unlikely to be happy with the low-key image of political leaders and royals in Scandinavia, say, or in the Benelux countries. South Africa needs to find its place between the two extremes, to provide its president with everything befitting the country’s chief representative, without allowing the colourful to become the crudely ostentatious.

Even at this pre-presidential stage questions are being asked about the sources of funds to which Zuma has access. Are his helicopter flights, for example, being paid for out of donations, or from ANC funds, or is the state footing the bill? And if there are doubts now about his expenditure, how much more alert and vigilant will we all have to be once he’s state president? Surely he cannot be allowed to believe that he’s been given a blank cheque to spend as he pleases?

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