Some years ago while studying in Berlin with a group of African and Asian journalists, we lived in a hostel populated by mainly young German work apprentices.
Our German friends, who commuted to and from the hostel each day on their bicycles, were flabbergasted to learn most of my group travelled around in cars in our home countries.
Surely cycling is more practical, far cheaper and good exercise? they argued.
My colleague from Uganda, a senior executive on his newspaper, jumped to the defence of the so-called Third Worlders.
“I’ll have you know I’m a deputy editor of my newspaper back home. If I were seen riding a bicycle to work, my people would laugh at me.”
Which got me thinking
What is it about us African people that makes us so preoccupied with such things as social class and status?
Despite all the arguments in favour of cycling, it has not caught on as a widely popular mode of transport in Africa, and especially here in South Africa.
As soon as people can afford one, they want to travel by car - a big fancy 4x4 if they can,
Should we be surprised?
Not really. Because the leaders we elected to office have set the norm.
Despite all their big talk about liberating their people from poverty and economic inequality and creating an egalitarian society, most of our leaders are basically slaves to social status and wealth.
They strive each day to build obscenely oversized nest eggs in the limited time they enjoy in office.
While you and I bite our nails down to the elbow worrying about the escalating cost of living, let’s take a peek into the kind of lives our public representatives enjoy.
Cabinet ministers earn a salary of R2 401 633 a year while their deputies will take home R1 977 795.
And that’s not counting their perks of luxury vehicles, first-class travel internationally, business-class local flights, state-owned residences, renovations, cleaning services and other out-of-pocket expenses.
Members of Parliament, both national and provincial, obviously earn a little less than their executive colleagues, but fall into the category of “fat cats”.
Juxtapose that with Uruguay’s former president, José “Pepe” Mujica who, jailed as a freedom fighter for 14 years, donated 90% of his presidential salary to charity and drove around in an old Volkswagen Beetle.
Or present-day Swedes where their MPs live in tiny flats, travel in crowded buses and trains, wash and iron their own clothes in communal laundries and live lives like the people who put them into office.
Frankly, our public representatives are spoilt and should take the advice of our Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng seriously.
He told new ministers and MPs at the recent swearing-in ceremonies: Take your oath of office seriously and don’t behave as if the public owes you something.
You are here to serve them.
* The view expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.