Zuma sleeping through budget speech is a symptom of a large problem, writes Jannie Rossouw
Recent political events in South Africa show a disturbing lack of respect for ordinary people by those who hold authority. This can be traced to the highest office in the land.
The latest example was President Jacob Zuma sleeping in Parliament during the presentation of the country’s Medium-Term Budget Policy statement by his Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Photographs of the president in deep slumber as Gordhan delivered his speech were published widely and shared on social media.
Gordhan’s speech was billed as one of the most important events on this year’s parliamentary agenda. The mid-term budget highlighted the government’s strategy to avert a credit risk downgrade.
If the country suffers a credit downgrade, the cost of borrowing will increase. This would have a dramatic impact on all South Africans, perhaps with the exception of obelele (the one who slept).
There was added tension to the finance minister’s speech because just a few weeks earlier he had been charged with fraud by a special police unit. There was widespread speculation that the charges were politically motivated and were linked to efforts by Zuma to remove him from the finance portfolio. After a public outcry, and plans for a major show of support for Gordhan on the first day of his trial, the charges were subsequently dropped.
Zuma has clearly failed to understand that respect is earned, not bestowed on him by the mere fact that he is the president of the Republic of South Africa.
People will only respect authority if it is earned. Those in positions of authority can hardly expect respect if they treat others disrespectfully.
Zuma’s sleeping in parliament is symptomatic of a much larger problem: the way in which those in authority show a general lack of respect for the people.
A few examples come to mind. The first is the total disrespect that drivers of the presidential convoy (also known as the blue light brigade) show to others using the roads.
But at the top of the list of rampant disrespectful behaviour is excessive and wasteful spending by those in authority. Here, too, examples can be traced to the highest office in the land.
Take the excessive spending by Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Dlamini, who was reported to have stayed at the high-end Oyster Box Hotel in uMhlanga at a cost of R11 000 a night. She did not pay for this overnight accommodation herself.
Then there is the wasteful and unjustified expenditure evident in the Nkandla matter. The scariest part of this wasteful story is that Zuma does not seem to understand that it is wrong to spend taxpayers’ money in this way.
Finally, there are numerous examples of taxpayers’ money being used to pay lawyers to defend politicians, including Zuma. The most recent is the legal challenge to the report prepared by former public protector Thuli Madonsela on state capture. The release of the report was subject to court proceedings initiated by Zuma which attracted major legal fees for the account of the taxpayers.
Opposition counsel has asked the courts to rule that Zuma be made personally for these costs
The matter is very serious. The fact that the public protector saw fit to complete a report (albeit contested) on state capture confirms that the taxpayers should be concerned. State capture in its simplest form implies that funds raised from taxpayers are misused for the benefit of the few who are well connected to those in positions of authority.
All these developments are particularly galling for South Africans because they involve misspent taxpayers, money. And, as set out in the mid-term budget, South Africans have to brace themselves to pay even more.
Gordhan announced that the government had to raise an additional R28 billion in taxes next year and a further R15bn in 2018. This will affect all South Africans – rich and poor – because one of the taxes likely to be raised is Value Added Tax which affects all consumers.
It is an accepted principle that the government raises taxes to meet its expenditure objectives.
Many are quite noble, such as alleviating poverty and subsidising universities.
But when money is being wasted it may well be time for South Africans to develop a new pressure group: “We the taxpayers”.
“We the taxpayers” of South Africa deserve better. There are two requests: those in authority must respect the people; and the government must be responsible in spending money raised through taxation.
* Jannie Rossouw is head of the School of Economic & Business Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand.