Political Watch

Political leaders and their flashy cars, and fading respects.

Mandela image, a rare commodity

Worldwide people are losing faith and showing less interest in politics and less respect for their political leaders. It is the responsibility of political leaders to institute remedies, starting with themselves.

The timing is purely coincidental, but perfect, and the contradiction, striking. On the same day the media reported on yet another disclosure by the minister of police on taxpayers’ money being squandered on president Zuma’s household, it also reported on a strikingly different option preferred by the British prime minister.

In response to a written question in parliament minister Nhleko said that in the last five financial years R8.6 million was spent from his budget allocation on luxury cars  for the wives of president Zuma.

The cars include high-end luxury makes as Range Rovers, Land Rover Discoveries and Audi Q7s.

Minister Nhleko’s reply comes shortly after Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan appealed to cabinet ministers for modest purchases of official vehicles as part of the general belt-tightening required by government.

Putting the purchase in perspective, it was pointed out by the opposition that the money spent could have funded 116 university students for a year, or 38 students for a three-year degree, or to hire an additional 61 police officers for a year.

Stark contrast

In stark contrast, the British prime minister, David Cameron, at no cost to the British tax payer, and out of his own pocket, bought his wife a second hand Nissan Micra, for a modest R34 200.

The salesman told the British media: “I didn’t give him a discount‚ he paid the screen price‚ got the log book‚ went to the post office to pay the tax and off he went.”

Cynics could argue that it was a cheap political ploy by Cameron to improve his image at a time when he and his party are facing serious challenges but, even if true, the contrast is remarkable and speaks volumes.

In what has by now become a trait of president Zuma and his household, there appears to be little or no recognition of the economic difficulties facing South Africa.

Against the backdrop of the country’s economic challenges and the passionate plea for financial discipline by Minister Gordhan during his budget speech, it is only logical to expect some sensitivity from the president and his household and for them to become an example of frugality. 

The British prime minister, in contrast, adopted a strikingly different, if not inspiring, option.

Answers needed

It is inevitable that questions will and must be asked regarding the extravagant lifestyles of political leaders at the expense of taxpayers. 

This is particularly true in a democracy if the notion is still valid that those elected should serve those who elected them and not the other way round.

A head of state, as first citizen and the face of his or her country, is certainly entitled to the benefits that come with the office to not only allow the incumbent the gravitas befitting a head of state but also to complement and enhance the image of the country and its people.

But with time, and almost unnoticed, matters got out of hand.

Today, commentators and analysts often refer to the high levels of corruption in politics and the arrogance so often displayed by people in high office as serious reasons why there is a growing resentment globally and, in many cases, unequalled high levels of political apathy shown by ordinary citizens.

Ordinary people worldwide are showing distrust in politics and politicians, labelling them as dishonest, deceitful and self-serving.

The conduct of politicians, not only in this country but across the globe, justifies this label. There are too many examples of dishonesty, self-enrichment, corruption, theft and perjury – and sadly they are multiplying.

Short on examples

History is short on examples of heads of state that stood firm and refused to give in to the temptations of power and the addiction it brings.

There were and are, however, also the exemplary models.     

A fine member of this exclusive club is a man most pundits had written off when he became the 33rd President of the United States in 1945 near the end of the Second World War and after the death of the highly acclaimed and respected Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

 Harry S Truman proved his critics wrong and will be remembered and revered mainly for two reasons – his astute and visionary leadership as leader of the free world after the war as the Cold War intensified and for his humility and honesty.  

Truman’s presidency was tarnished by corruption involving officials in his administration, but the president himself never wavered. 

Arguably his most memorable remark came on leaving office when offered corporate positions at large salaries. He declined, stating: "You don't want me. You want the office of the president, and that doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the American people and it’s not for sale."

Impressive indeed, but as one commentator wrote recently, “We now see that other past presidents, have found a new level of success in cashing in on the presidency, resulting in untold wealth”.

Political offices are now for sale and politics have become a lucrative business, best illustrated by the possibility of a most vulgar and presumptuous business magnate becoming the next leader of the world’s most powerful nation.

More recently the last president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, often referred to, “as the president most other countries would rather have” caught the attention for “living by his principles”.

A former guerrilla fighter, he spent a total of 13 years in jail, two of them lying at the bottom of an old horse trough. After becoming president, he preferred stay on in his own humble one-storey house rather than the presidential palace. He and his wife travel about in a battered VW Beetle. He says: “All I do, is live like the majority of my people, not the minority. I’m living a normal life.”

During his presidency Mujica gave away about 90% of his salary to charity, simply because he had “no need for it”.

Also, when president Mujica left office by the end of 2015, Uruguay’s economy and social stability were in better shape thanMandela shares R22m with his former employees, schoolsits bigger neighbours Argentina and Brics member, Brazil.


South Africa had Nelson Mandela and the ode to Mojica also holds true for the South African icon: “This enigmatic leader remains an inspiration to many and is a reminder that politics is meant to be a humble and honourable profession.”

Also read: Mandela shares R22m with his former employees, schools

This is a reminder all heads of state should take to heart and, if they do, it would not be necessary for the current South African president and his party to demand respect – something that must be earned, even by heads of state.

by Garth Cilliers

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