Uruguay's President Jose Mujica Picture: Cristobal Saavedra

Jay Naidoo wishes SA politicians could imbibe a dose of the humility and spirit of service, personified in Uruguay’s president.

The president of Uruguay, José Mujica, drives a Volkswagen Beetle, stays in his own house, donates 90 percent of his salary to social projects and is reputed to be the poorest president in the world.

It is a title he disputes, saying: “I have a way of life that I don’t change because I am president. I have everything I want. I earn more than I need even if it’s not enough for others. I’m not poor.” That title, he says of the poorest presidents, belongs to politicians who need blue-light cavalcades or Christian Louboutin shoes, or who sneakily claim business-class flights for their relatives at taxpayers’ expense.

The leader of the Tupamaros revolutionary group in the 1960s, Mujica earned a reputation as the “Robin Hood of guerrillas” by robbing delivery trucks and banks and distributing the food and money among the poor. He was shot by the police four times, wounded and spent 14 years in a military prison. Later he was released under an amnesty law in 1985.

The popular leader lives with his wife, Senator Lucia Topolansky, in a modest, two-roomed farmhouse outside the capital, Montevideo.

He announced that the presidential palace is included among state shelters for the homeless. Mujica cuts an unlikely figure as a president with his worn-out clothes, looking more of a scruffy, elderly farmer. That is why he has a Madiba-like magic about him. His love of people is genuine and profound.

He firmly believes that the role of government is to provide basic services, tackle corruption and make sure children have good education.

The country is proud of its social traditions and Mujica, like Lula in Brazil, affirms the right of his people to food. The government sets prices for essential commodities such as milk and provides free computers and education for every child.

Key energy and telecommunications industries are nationalised. But his policies are more akin to the pragmatism of the Lula administration in Brazil than the hardline policies of a Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

In his speech at the UN’s Rio+20 summit Mujica condemned the “blind obsession” with achieving economic growth through consumption. It is this “hyper-consumption that is destroying the environment”. “The cause is the model of civilisation that we have created. And the thing we have to re-examine is our way of life,” he said.

The president insists that all government policies promote the use of renewable energy and recycling. Uruguay has set an ambitious goal of producing 90 percent of its energy through renewable sources. But he grudgingly accepts he must focus on jobs and growth first.

“I’m fighting for more work and more investment because people ask for more and more,” he said. “I am trying to expand consumption but to diminish unnecessary consumption … I’m opposed to waste – of energy, resources, or time. We need to build things that last. That’s an ideal, but it may not be realistic because we live in an age of accumulation.”

The president admits he doesn’t have the answers, but the former Marxist said the search for a solution must be political. “We can recycle almost everything now. If we lived within our means the 7 billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction,” he said. “But we think as people and countries, not as a species.”

Last year his government passed the world’s most sweeping marijuana regulation law, which will give the state a major role in the legal production, distribution and sale of the drug. “This is not about being free and open. It’s a logical step. We want to take users away from clandestine business,” he said.

“With marijuana, this is not about being more liberal. We will also restrict their right to smoke if they exceed sensible amounts of consumption. It is like alcohol. If you drink a bottle of whisky a day, then you should be treated as a sick person,” he said.

Decriminalising and regulating marijuana has seen its usage in Holland drop. Uruguay’s laws on gay rights, same-sex marriage and abortion rival those of our own and made it the most socially liberal country in Latin America. Rightly so, Mujica is proud of his homeland – one of the safest and least corrupt in the region – and describes Uruguay as “an island of refugees in a world of crazy people”.

As veteran revolutionaries Mujica and his wife chat fondly about meetings with Che Guevara and other leaders, but he has mixed feelings about the recent revolts and protests in Brazil, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. “The world will always need revolution. That doesn’t mean shooting and violence. A revolution is when you change your thinking. Confucianism and Christianity were both revolutionary,” he said.

But he is less excited about demonstrations organised by social networks that quickly fizzle out. “The protesters will probably finish up working for multinationals and dying of modern diseases.” Are these protests a forerunner to a different paradigm of development?

In a world of deepening economic inequality, Mujica wants to lead by example.

“I’m just sick of the way things are. We’re in an age in which we can’t live without accepting the logic of the market,” Mujica said recently. “What we have left is the automatisation of doing what the market tells us.”

Is he not refreshing? I would love to share a coffee and meal with him and Lucia one day. Like our founding father Madiba, President Mujica lives every day for his people. And like billions around the world, I wish our politicians could imbibe a dose of the humility and spirit of service, personified in this humble man from Uruguay.

* Jay Naidoo is a former minister of Reconstruction and Development Programme and a founding member of Cosatu. He chairs the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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