Politics: is bling no longer the thing?

2013-03-05 00:00

THERE is a phone call that makes your heart stop. It goes like this: the phone rings and you answer. “Good morning, Ferial,” comes a friendly voice. “Good morning,” you reply, “who am I speaking to?” Then from the other end: “Kgalema. How are you?”

And then your heart stops.

I‘ve known Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe since he first patiently explained the ins and outs of the diamond industry to me when I was a newbie labour reporter, and I’ve loved him ever since. But we are not on calling-up terms. It could only mean one thing: City Press has done something.

The genial deputy president has called to talk about a story that City Press published on February 10, titled “Motlanthe’s island escape”.

In a nutshell, the story is that the state paid R2 million to transport Motlanthe, his partner and members of their family, to a holiday in the Seychelles.

Motlanthe paid for the accommodation at the Desroches Island Resort himself, but the flight costs, the stay of the security detail and the recce to scope it out before they arrived all come from the state’s purse.

Motlanthe told me how he had lost all personal autonomy as a deputy president (a job he does free of charge since he receives the pension of a former president for the time he spent acting in the role after Thabo Mbeki was axed) because, according to him, “your life gets taken over. The state transports you, everywhere, by programme. I can’t even browse Exclusive Books.”

In our conversation, I got a sense, for the first time, of the underside of being in the power bubble — that vacuum created around you by a security detail, bodyguards and associated flunkies — when you reach high office.

Older leaders of the ANC have never adopted the airs and graces of office (thus, it’s “Kgalema” speaking, and I was not summoned to the Union Buildings), but the system comes to define you.

In our newsroom, we debated for a long time about whether the trip required covering at all, but we went ahead and published the story because it was a big spend in an unequal land, even though it is not illegal and Motlanthe had little say in the spending. This was his objection and it’s undeniably true.

Another view in our conference was that he’s the deputy president, hence the price tag comes with the job.

To give you a sense of proportion, on the same day I picked up a copy of the Cape Times and found an article about “Rand-a-Ramas”. These are the spaza shops that now sell goods such as sugar, washing powder, tea bags and coffee in packs of R1 each, because that’s all many households can afford.

The hearings held by the National Energy Regulator of SA on what electricity tariff increase the nation can absorb was a raw telescope into poor South Africa.

Although one of the biggest democratic dividends was the extension of power to, now, 85% of homes, many people told the commissioners they could not afford it.

All countries in the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa group of countries have the same problem. The faster they grow, the higher inequality becomes and only the elite benefit. But bling life is becoming a political risk. In China, the politburo has instructed its central committee members to get their families to curb it.

Austerity defined the official celebration of the Chinese lunar new year in Beijing last month. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is attempting to outlaw graft by stomping on the export of the benefits of corruption. This is not because he has belatedly been bitten by the frugality bug, but because the era of the oligarchs (the famed rise of the former apparatchiks of the Soviet era) is finally becoming a liability.

So, while “Kgalema” is right that he did not do anything wrong, the wider problem is that while various handbooks and laws do permit publicly financed bling, is it the right thing to do?

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