Showers of disdain

2018-10-16 16:27


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I felt a bit like a Stasi spy (water division), or a voluntary lifestyle auditor.

As a child I was terrified the police would bust us for putting the sprinkler on after hours during a drought. The 1983 drought made sure of enduring frugal habits, and when Cape Town dribbled towards Day Zero and imposed two-minute showers I thought that’s as it should be.

So when a new guy at gym took a 20-minute shower last week I was tempted to drown him. No one can be that dirty. Didn’t he have better things to do? When I found there was no hot water left after his frolic I could have drowned him again.

His carelessness rankles. My gym is a modest place. The equipment’s been there since it opened more than 20 years ago. The regulars don’t show off, even though some have reason to. Mr Shower is more on the flash side. He’s not a regular. GP number plate. New Merc. Costs way over a million. Turns out he’s a public servant. I can’t stop myself from thinking that explains it, and this is how it works. Soak the public and flush it all away.

Is this unfair on Mr Shower? Isn’t he just a lucky guy who landed a job with a big salary?

What do we know about the public service though? It’s inflated, stuffed with political pals whose only jobs are to make up the numbers, and whose tax-taking salaries not only bear no relation to their non-jobs, but exceed those of taxpayers in the private sector. We also know, from the Treasury’s submissions to Parliament, that at least half of public tenders are, as it is so politely put, “inflated”. Robbery, in short.

So let’s say that Mr Shower may not be a thief in the night, pilfering small things he can carry away. No, let’s let him off the hook a bit and say he’s part of a system, the workings of which are corrupt and in which he is just a cog.

It’s easy to fudge the question of culpability and responsibility when one is faced with pervasive practices, and it seems churlish to single out individuals. How would they extricate themselves from a system that is rigged in their favour; stand apart from a network of criminality? Moreover, I’m aware that fulminating against Mr Shower is as useful, and demeaning, as shouting at a waiter.

But then I think of VBS Mutual Bank, and it feels very personal again. VBS, as if we need reminding, dished out R2 billion to a range of thieves: its own directors, in bribes to municipalities to “invest” money they don’t have in the bank, unionists, “businesspeople” and politicians. As an equal-opportunity enterprise, it favoured both members of the ANC and those rhetorical proponents of Radical Economic Transformation, the EFF. One might say that there were only 53 culprits feeding from this particular tit, as the SA Reserve Bank report, “The Great Bank Heist” established. But in the process they not only brought down a bank, they subverted public institutions, à la Gupta, and they raided the accounts of small depositors. They could do it because they traded on political capital and not being part of white monopoly capital, à la Gupta.

The VBS story is no more than a variation on a theme, with all the same elements in play: business, politicians, accountants, the public purse and hapless members of the public. These are all bloodless terms, like “system”. But the report also gives a glimpse of the very ugly face of greed.

It quotes a WhatsApp message from politically connected middleman Kabelo Matsepe to the chair of VBS‚ Tshifhiwa Matodzi, about the Vhembe District Municipality mayor pleading for a “Christmas” for her good work in the scam. It reads: “We gave her 300 k and she cried and said we gave juniors R1,5 m and we give her 300k … If we can let’s give her 1% or 2% on a level of trust because she did keep her promise …” A mayor, already on an inflated salary, complaining about her share and demanding kickback equity.

The SARB report said of VBS: “It is corrupt and rotten to the core. Indeed, there is hardly a person in its employ in any position of authority who is not, in some way or other, complicit.”

And we know that VBS is no more than an exemplar of the nexus of corruption between private and public enterprise.

This level of greed is never hidden. It is shown off, by this bunch in the form of Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces. Shredding the social compact on this scale has as one of its consequences that ostentation is seen as the categorical display of ill-gotten gains.

Mr Shower may have earned his Merc, and maybe all he was doing was stealing some water. Maybe there was too much dirt to clean off in two minutes.

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