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Slashing ministers' perks is long overdue - but leaders must wake up to their constituents' concerns, says Makhudu Sefara.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan may have hogged the headlines on Thursday but, in reality, the day ought to have belonged to Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.
She wasn’t talking about something as exciting and due as stripping politicians of a life of luxe, but she was onto something that goes to the heart of our governance challenges.
Addressing the Black Management Forum in Midrand as Gordhan addressed Parliament, Madonsela put her thumb on the heartbeat of our nation: Our greatest challenge is lack of accountability and lapses in leadership.
In her words: “It (governance) is a relationship of trust and it can only succeed if those who are entrusted with power and resources understand that they are stewards – that resources do not belong to them. At the level of government… we are getting a mentality (from communities) that says if we start a fire they will come.
“With a trust deficit (with regard to government), some communities are increasingly resorting to violence and are literally starting fires with the view to draw attention to themselves.”
And, it appears, councillor Thabani Mngomezulu of the ANC would know exactly what Madonsela is talking about. On Wednesday, about 40 people marched on his house in Silver City, west of Joburg, intending to burn it down.
Residents of nearby Bekkersdal have, for weeks, been protesting against what they call service delivery and allegations of corruption.
“This violence won’t last for ever,” Mngomezulu said.
Hopefully he is right. And time, we know, heals even the deepest of wounds.
To sustain anger against Mngomezulu and his colleagues might prove a tall order for young men and women who look like they ought to be in jobs rather than swelling the stone-throwing brigade, burning tyres and vandalising public property that’s supposed to benefit them.
But the Bekkersdal community is too angry to care about that. Their view is that Mngomezulu is the very embodiment of government leaders who wouldn’t give a damn about them – so woe unto him.
They feel the fires must be lit, the tyre smoke must go up and President Jacob Zuma must eventually make his way to address them and tell them that, in the end, it will all be fine.
But Mngomezulu, like many other councillors across the country, is in a fix because of the problems of which Madonsela spoke: accountability and leadership.
His house might still be safe, but Councillor Silas Letsema of Duduza, near Nigel, knows too well the pain of witnessing a putsch degenerate into the actual torching of his house and car, with his two children inside. They survived a landless mob whose shacks were demolished earlier.
In Ermelo, councillor Mavela Mhlanga suffered a similar fate, with the Msukalingwa municipality employee crashing a car as he fled the marauding gang.
The cost of non-delivery is inestimable.
Those who protest against service delivery are not, I believe, unreasonable xenophobes with an insatiable desire for fire, death and destruction.
These, I think, know that the government could not have resolved all their challenges in almost 20 years of democracy.
All they yearn for is a government that provides leadership in their lives. All they see, though, are people focused on the benefits of which Gordhan spoke so well during his budget policy statement.
Well done to Gordhan for getting his cabinet colleagues to agree to give up these luxuries. Pity it took so long. Next must be that ministerial handbook.
But the truth is that when poor, unemployed, stuck-in-a-rut community members feel there is nothing happening in their lives, and yet see their leaders cruise across town like medieval kings and queens, sip the finest drinks, demand five-star hotels, engage in debauchery and generally behave as if unaffected by our economic slowdown, this will invite cynicism.
And this might manifest in the underclass girding for war and targeting councillors, because they are the face of this extravagant chivalry. Yet all they yearn for is for someone in authority to talk to them about what is being done, and share with them the difficulties of budget prioritisation: what to do for whom, when.
While they understand that their leaders must not live paupers’ lives, nothing unhinges them more than seeing that pro-fligacy, corruption and self-interest appear to replace that caring and empathetic government they elected.
Gordhan will have difficulty explaining why this austerity came after his department authorised that R206 million expenditure on that resort in Nkandla.
So while Gordhan won the day, or rather, the headlines, this will not be enough to help people like Mngomezulu sleep well at night. To hope that Letsema and Mhlanga’s fate will not befall his family.
The key is to translate Gordhan’s vignette to action. To not merely get buy-in, but co-operative implementation that is, importantly, supported by focus on service delivery. But we know that some in the ANC believe these stone-throwing brigades must just sit down until election time, when food parcels will do to secure votes.
That is such a shame.
Instead of fighting over who has rights to commiserate with the families in Diepsloot whose children were raped and killed, creating an, erm, un-African-like spectacle, they should be spending time where there are fires to douse – or fixing roads in Rustenburg and, well, Malawi?
They should be trying to understand what the real problem is, seeking intervention from provincial and even dragging Performance Minister Collins Chabane in to help resolve community concerns before councillors’ houses are reduced to ashes.
To do this is to provide the accountability and halt the lapses in leadership of which Madonsela spoke.
Without these, the applause and cheers Gordhan received in Parliament will be ephemeral; the victory, pyrrhic.