RANJENI MUNuSAMY No respect - government disdainful of public opinion

2015-11-18 06:00

WE had a bout of full-blown public outrage recently, this time over reports that President Jacob Zuma is to get a new private plane which could cost up to R4 billion.

Even in a well-functioning economy with bounteous resources, this would be considered extravagant and wasteful expenditure.

According to the specifications published by Armscor, the aircraft must be able to carry 30 passengers and have a range of 13 800 km. The jet must also include a private bedroom suite, a bathroom and a conference room for eight people.

This caused an explosion of public anger, with people calling into radio stations to vent and expressing their distaste on social media.

The timing of the proposed purchase is particularly offensive, considering the desperate need to fund the shortfall in higher education after university fee increases were scrapped.

Large parts of the country require relief measures to survive the drought, with five provinces declared disaster zones.

We are told constantly about belt-tightening measures in government and this year Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene increased personal taxes and levies to raise revenue.

It therefore seems wholly inappropriate to splash out on a luxury jet when taxpayers are already squeezed and people are in desperate need for food, water and education. But what does the outpouring of anger do? Does public outrage have any effect on decision-making or the power to stop wasteful expenditure?

Judging by recent history, it seems not.

At the start of the Zuma presidency in 2009, there were several scandals over Cabinet ministers splashing out on luxury vehicles, indulging in prolonged stays at lavish hotels and undertaking overseas trips with their entourages.

Even after some of these were exposed, ministers continued to live the high life, apparently believing they were entitled to live and travel like royalty.

At the end of 2009, it was exposed that Zuma’s home at Nkandla was undergoing a multimillion rand upgrade at state cost.

This did not encourage those in charge of the project, and those benefitting from it, to be conservative with the upgrades and mindful that public funds should be spent properly.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela noted in her March 2014 report into the Nkandla upgrades: “Apart from the release of a statement by the presidency on December 3, 2009, denying that government was footing the bill, nothing seems to have been done by government to verify the 2009 allegations or attempt to arrest the costs which the article predicted would continue to rise.”

The cost therefore escalated from the estimated R65 million in 2009 to the eventual cost of R246 million.

You would think the government would have learnt some hard lessons from the Nkandla scandal and be more respectful of the South African public now. How is it possible that the government did not anticipate that plans to buy a new luxury jet would result in another raging scandal?

There was a bland response from the presidency to the outrage, with a statement calling on the Department of Defence to provide the public with more information on the plans to purchase a new jet.

The presidency also noted that while the new aircraft would be for the president and deputy president’s use, it belonged to the state.

How is that supposed to make South Africans feel better? It is not as if belonging to the state means that ordinary citizens could have access to it, should anyone have the need to make a 13 800 km journey.

Armscor has refused to disclose the budget for the purchase of the plane.

The truth is that the government is disdainful of public opinion no matter how much outrage there is.

The only time it reacts is when it is under severe pressure — as was the case in the recent student protests.

That should be a lesson for all of us the next time we want to call a radio station to complain or write a hard-hitting message on Facebook or Twitter.

• Ranjeni Munusamy is a political journalist and correspondent for the Daily Maverick. ranjeni.munusamy@gmail.com

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