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Watching our political class living like the lords of old, gorging themselves on our hard-earned money while millions struggle in abject poverty, you would have every reason to despair, to feel our republic is doomed.
The widespread plunder of public funds, almost always without consequence for the politically connected thieves, certainly does not inspire confidence in the future.
It’s cold comfort, but others, great empires far bigger than us, have been here before.
I am indebted to an erudite letter writer to a Joburg daily who this week reminded me of an ancient republic that faced challenges similar to ours.
It eventually collapsed because of greed, political squabbles and lust for power by its political elite.
That was the Roman republic of two millennia ago. Here is an account of the historian Sallust (86-35 BC) of the political class of his time:
“The lust for money first, then for power, grew upon them.
“For avarice destroyed honour, integrity, and all other noble qualities; taught in their place insolence, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to set a price on everything.
“Ambition drove many men to become false; to have one thought locked in the breast, another ready on the tongue; to value friendships and enmities not on their merits but by the standard of self-interest, and to show a good front rather than a good heart.
“At first these vices grew slowly, from time to time they were punished; finally, when the disease had spread like a deadly plague, the state was changed and a government second to none in equity and excellence became cruel and intolerable.”
The Roman could have been telling the tale of our times.
Our golden age was the first few years after 1994 when we still had sufficient numbers of men and women in public life imbued with a spirit of service. Many soon moved on to the private sector to make their fortunes.
Those who remained behind soon got used to the spoils of office and over time a sense of entitlement to the public purse. It’s been downhill since.
Now, almost every province and municipality is under siege from looters jostling to raid the Treasury. A recent headline case is Limpopo, the corrupt fiefdom of Lord Julius and his cronies.
They have been spending your money like drunken sailors, eventually emptying the allocated budget before the end of the financial year.
While tender millionaires have been sprouting like mushrooms in summer in that province, the lot of the poor has remained desperate.
It’s the same story, to varying degrees, all over the country. The consequence of the crimes is that the poor are being cheated of good schools, working hospitals and decent housing.
If the rot continues unchecked, the fate of ancient Rome awaits our land.
But we can avoid it. History does not have to repeat itself here.
Our hope lies in a discerning, politically aware public, able to put the past aside and vote for people best able to manage our affairs for the common good.
It lies in a robust civil society, including independent workers’ unions and a vibrant media, continuing to hold the powerful, in private and public life, accountable for their public actions.
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Our judges are putting up a spirited opposition to calls to disclose their financial interests, as is being proposed by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe.
The regulations would compel them to disclose in a register their assets and business interests as well as those of their children and spouses.
It seems a sensible proposal. The judiciary is an arm of the state and judges adjudicate matters involving members of the public, companies and state agencies.
They are bound to encounter areas of conflict of interest in the course of their duties. In such situations, they are expected to recuse themselves and they often do.
But as the unseemly matter of the judge president of the Cape, John Hlophe, so starkly revealed, we can’t leave it to the judges to police themselves.
It’s understandable they would be reluctant to have their business affairs in the public spotlight. But that comes with being in state employ. Transparency would be in the public interest.