In South Africa like in other countries, the ‘Wabenzi class’ splashes on luxury cars and thrives on opulence in the land of poverty and despair. Photo: Supplied
In South Africa like in other countries, the ‘Wabenzi class’ splashes on luxury cars and thrives on opulence in the land of poverty and despair. Photo: Supplied

A man of the people – making sense of the public office

By Siyabonga Hadebe Time of article published Jan 14, 2020

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PRETORIA – This article is motivated by renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s novel titled: ‘A Man of the People’ (1966), which presents sharp contradictions that come with holding a public office in the African context. Written in the 1960s, the book pushes his premonitious satire which highlights some of the regrettable and embarrassing occurrences that have taken place, and or continue to happen, all over Africa since the early days of independence.

In South Africa like in other parts of the continent, the ‘Wabenzi class’ (a Swahili language slang coming from the early 1960s for those who own a Mercedes Benz, normally politicians) splashes on luxury cars and thrives on opulence in the land of poverty and despair. Unemployment in South Africa is almost 30 percent, poverty is above 0.6 in terms of the Gini coefficient index and socio-economic problems continue to rise, but the Wabenzi enjoy life that is above of ordinary citizens. Public office, and or proximity thereto, has become a getaway to amassing wealth to display it on Instagram and other platforms.

This culture is rising disproportionately in contrast to reality, therefore it cannot be left unchecked. Accompanying this culture are grotesque behaviors that make mockery of the liberation struggle that our forefathers fought for over four centuries. For example, it is uncommon for individuals to boast that they spend a hundred thousand rands on booze alone. Individuals don’t see anything wrong with abusing state resources to acquire cars and sleeping in expensive hotels, when there are alternatives. This is the reality we face that could defer a dream for the majority of the black population. An opportunity to access genuine political power is completely misused and replaced with conspicuous consumption and instant gratification.

It is therefore important to state from the onset that it is high time that we are bolder in dismissing myths and misperceptions about what is considered ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in our society without fearing being judged or ridiculed. Often, there is a little or no difference between what is right or wrong in our society depending on a number of factors. Even our morals depend on the weather condition - there is no consistency in how we think. The biggest contributor to this stems from our lack of exposure and or accepting things as fait accompli. This thinking means that we are not allowed to ask and challenge the present.

Tradition and culture are perhaps the most visible, strongest legacy of the dead. 

Therefore, they have nothing to do with us today and in the future. Even ourselves we cannot overburden future generations with mindless traditions and behaviors. This applies to everything we do or say. For instance, who said anyone who is voted to a public office must get a car, house and unfettered access to state resources? Logic tells me that everyone must buy his or her own house, car, clothes and other necessities for his or her family. Imagine how many people would be interested in politics if these ‘perks’ were to be removed. Thinking and behavior is shaped by what the French call politique du ventre (or politics of the stomach).

The growing Wabenzi power

The effect of the growing Wabenzi power is felt by communities who receive shabby services and continue to live in abject poverty. Speaking in Galeshewe, Kimberely, on 7 January 2020 the deputy secretary of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) Jessie Duarte said, “We can't say the ANC lives and the ANC leads while people live like this...” As per norm, she accepts to take no responsibility for the present mess and tosses the responsibility elsewhere.

Nonetheless, the origins of the Wabenzi class can be traced in Kenya in the early days of independence where lifestyles of the members of the then new ruling class “superseded the colonial regime.” But the term has grown to be used in other parts of the continent “to refer to the new ruling class in any post-colonial African country.” One would have thought that the new political elites in South Africa would avoid going down the same path but they didn’t.

This takes me to established traditions in state governance system where the practice of treating elected political representatives as demigods continues without anyone willing to question anything. It is quite common to hear people defending these as ‘perks’, ‘protocol’, ‘security arrangement’, and other fancy concepts on grounds that an individual is a mayor, CEO, minister or even councilor. For many years now the issue of ‘blue lights’ and disregard for ordinary citizens and workers in general have been raised. The responses have been political rather than based on simple rationale. 

Everyday in our lives we hear about equality and protecting human dignity. Yet what happens in practice is distasteful and contrary to the daily song. For instance, what makes a politician different from you and I for him or her to be surrounded by an army of men in dark-suits and dangerous weapons, and to drive in a vehicle with black windows when ordinary citizens aren’t allowed to even tint windows of their cars? Why do we have to all stand in traffic and some people fly past all of us in cars with blue lights? So, it appears that in our context this is the nature of problems and irritation a voter brings upon himself or herself. 

There are all reasons that will be given but this culture or tradition is over-the-top for a society like ours that is not only thriving for equality to take place but where there is also an urgent need to use scarce resources with prudence and care. The feudal practices that mirror the old ‘theory of divine right of kings’ should have long been discarded to create a new society we want that is based on equality, respect and dignity. Allowing individuals to enjoy privileges such as high security, chauffeur-driven cars and kingly-status creates monsters that we often find hard to control. 

This is not what freedom means to many people who face harsh realities of life on a daily basis.

Africa does not accept exploitation of people

Some people would defend this excessiveness from the public purse and say these issues are raised because it is black people who are now entitled. For them, anyone who objects to the prevalence of the Wabenzi culture is jealous, or is a controlled stooge. Nigerian musician and Sonyika’s cousin Fela Anikulapo Kuti took it upon himself to rebel against a system that created the Wabenzi, or the ‘man-eat-man society’ as former Tanzanian president Mwalimu Nyerere, called them. His Kalakuta Republic in the suburbs of Lagos was meant to make a statement that not just Nigeria but the whole of Africa does not accept exploitation of people.

So, this was about ordinary people simply questioning what is before them and also trying to create the future we want. Kuti unfortunately attracted violence and brute from military junta under General Olesegun Obasanjo (now who is ominously a respected African statesman) for standing for what every African should be doing in order to get things to be done right. The example of Kuti shows that so many people have voiced concerns in different countries across the continent. Thus, what this piece advocates for is not beyond what can be done. 

With all the criticism and lambasting that are often directed at the present United States President, the truth is that Donald Trump will be remembered for ‘breaching’ centuries-old ways of doing government business including diplomacy and state communications. His twinging fingers make sure that his message easily reaches Americans and millions of people around the world via Twitter. His posts run faster than press statements and note verbales. 

This example of Trump and how he has revolutionized government business shows that change is possible; it doesn’t matter difficult it seems. Now most heads of state and government and others like ordinary citizens, politicians and business leaders, if not all, have personal Twitter accounts. The days of waiting for someone to draft a statement for a lousy congratulatory messages is over. Presidents send these messages from their handsets and reach millions in an instant.

It is not only Trump who took the bull by the horns. Closer to home, Thomas Sankara in 1983 toppled the government of Sangoulé Lamizan in Upper Volta, today called Burkina Faso. Sankara screamed, "Who are the enemies of the people?… Owls with the shady look in their eyes." One his legacies was doing away with the luxuries widely associated with the oligarchs of Africa such as expensive cars, fat salaries, houses, etc. 

Speaking to Al Jazeera, economist Noel Nebie said, “Sankara wanted a thriving Burkina Faso, relying on local human and natural resources as opposed to foreign aid and starting with agriculture, which represents more than 32 percent of the country’s GDP and employs 80 percent of the working population, he smashed the economic elite who controlled most of the arable land and granted access to subsistence farmers. That improved production making the country almost self-sufficient.” His assassination ended a life that wanted to lead the way in changing how Africa thinks.

Probably, Sankara understood that these things were a smack on the faces who prayed hard for colonialists to go, but Africans somehow retained them for no good reason. As Frantz Fanon puts it, the new political and economic classes wanted to retain a master-slave relationship. 

When it comes to silly traditions that were left behind by colonizers, Africa is very good at retaining them. If one travels across former British colonies, black jurists and lawyers were blonde wigs during court sessions and no one has questioned this in Kenya or Zambia. This essentially explains that we have not created any institutions that bear our image and how we’d like things to be done. It doesn’t how large or small, African states appear to be quite obsessed with security and royal treatment of their elected representatives as opposed to many developed countries in, say, Europe or Japan.

When individuals solicit votes they enter our homes without bodyguards and other "perks". But as soon as they get appointed to office all sorts of stories emerge. Who wants to kill them in all of a sudden? Personally, I lived in one European country, the president and cabinet ministers do their shopping and use public transport. What is so difficult in our countries for elected representatives to do the same? 

Blue lights and other related nonsense

Seeing that fiscus is under pressure this makes even more sense than before. If holding a public office is about bodyguards, blue lights and other related nonsense then why are we surprised at the denigration of institutions and appalling service delivery? What is even more shocking is that politicians in rural municipalities that can barely make ends meet also have bodyguards. 

We also act surprised when people refuse to step down from their positions and when they fail to execute their mandates in fear of losing their statuses. For once, the calls for prudence, not austerities, deserve our support in dealing with excessiveness and other behaviours. 

‘Dieu et mon droit’ ( or God and my right), which is still motto of the Monarch of the United Kingdom since 1193, basically says: “I am born in a rank which recognizes no superior but God, to whom alone I am responsible for my actions”. This basically points to the idea that individuals (monarchs) only account to God and no one else. On the other hand, the basic understanding of democracy purports that it is “rule by the people” as opposed to an oligarchy. 

A popular democracy where everyone is equal and respected can be achieved in Africa. Pratyush Chandra argues, “Modern capitalism relies mainly on representative democracy as the political system to reproduce the general conditions of capitalist accumulation.” As a result, the present system of ceremonial democracy excludes people in governance and key decisions to protect narrow interests of a few. This system was designed to benefit only the local agents of primitive accumulation and commercialization, perpetuating South Africa’s dependency. It is therefore up to the ordinary people to change the status quo and adopt popular democracy without landlords and Randlords.

We can do this without fear or favour, it is achievable.

As American scholar Peter Drucker said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it!” It is entirely up to us to imagine this future today and try to channel our energies and behaviors towards attaining it. Relying on old, established customs and traditions might be of no use to our needs. 

In the memory of Jose Mujica (Uruguay) and Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso).

Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economic, politics and global matters based in Pretoria.

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