CAPE TOWN — It’s not called the Gravy Train for nothing. Author of the anti-proportional representation blog Disconnected Democracy, Graham Sell, lays out the tracks of our voter tears upon which politicians earn salaries far greater than 99% of those they represent. They’re a law unto themselves until they really stuff up or steal big time and are called to testify before the relevant parliamentary portfolio committee or it’s provincial or municipal equivalent. In Zuma’s day, not even the Hawks or the National Prosecuting Authority would move against a politician without the ruling party’s go-ahead. Instead, protected in the scaly shoals they swim in where one fishy character cannot be distinguished from another because of the proportional representation system, they continue to be unaccountable, regardless of new party leadership. Worse then that, they flaunt their new-found wealth like Royals before the unwashed masses, striking envy and fear into their hearts. Until election time, when party manifestos and rhetoric are hauled out to win them another five-year ride. Forget about principles, or a better life for all. It’s a great job if you can get it. That is until the masses actually pull up the tracks and derail the train. – Chris Bateman
By Graham Sell*
The appalling behaviour of ANC, EFF and UDM councillors in Nelson Mandela Bay’s council chamber on Thursday 29th March 2018 provides further irrefutable proof that once elected, politicians become a law unto themselves.
It is blatantly obvious these people have no concern for their constituents, so why on earth did they choose a career in politics? The simple answer is that politics is just another business opportunity that pays better than most jobs, not only in South Africa, but worldwide. The £77k per year basic salary for Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom puts them in the top 5% of earners in the UK, and the $174k per year basic salary for Senators in the United States puts them in the top 3% of earners in the USA.
South African politicians, however, top this list. According to SARS 2016 published statistics, out of more than 19 million registered taxpayers in South Africa, only 19,834 are paid more than R1million – a relatively small number of people that, shock and horror, includes Members of Parliament, Government Ministers, Members of the Provincial Legislature, Executive Mayors of larger municipalities, Municipal Managers and members of Executive Committees in Metro councils etc. etc.
If you haven’t worked it out yet, a R1m+ annual basic salary puts most SA politicians not in the top 5%, nor the top 3%, but in the top 0.1% of registered taxpayers. In other words, 99.9% of South Africans earn less than most politicians throughout all levels of what we laughingly refer to as “Government”! High incomes, coupled with Napoleon Bonaparte’s observation “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap” explains why so many self-serving idiots are in political positions of authority.
In this parallel universe, politicians behave as if they are the most elite of the elite. They indulge in obscenely conspicuous displays of wealth that serve no purpose other than to impress “the masses” with their exalted status. Ex-President Jacob Zuma has been seen wearing R500k Swiss watches, yet he never managed to turn up anywhere on-time – ever; the Gucci Marxists of the EFF have been seen wearing $1000 Louboutin shoes while driving top-of-the-range luxury vehicles, only to change into their public-performance outfits of pristine condition overalls and hardhats, neither of which have seen a hard day’s work in their 5 years of wear.
Such behaviour adds credence to the presumption that political parties in South Africa are just for-profit businesses. Their “ideological manifestos” are simply the packaged products they use to attract the largest possible market share of voters. The bigger their market share, the more profitable the business becomes.
Political parties actively encourage their public representatives to throw National Interest under the bus in favour of scoring cheap political points that might appeal to their “target market”. They also slavishly defend the corrupt and incompetent within their ranks, not in the public interest, but in the name of “unity”, or because they refuse to acknowledge their mistake in appointing these people in the first place. On the other side of their perverse political coin, they severely punish those who refuse to toe the party line when it conflicts with their individual ethical, and moral imperatives.
It is clear, at least to me, that South Africa’s Democracy (“A system of government in which power is vested in the people, who rule either directly or through freely elected representatives.”) is a Unicorn – in other words it captivates our imagination but is nonetheless just a mythical fantasy. We certainly do not rule directly, although every five years we can freely vote for a political party. However, under the Proportional Representation electoral system, it is the party that selects National Assembly representatives – not us. What this really means is that when we cast our vote in National elections, we are also meekly surrendering any, and all power we might have to political party leaders. That they are so disdainful of us for four years out of their five-year terms of office is therefore unsurprising.
Even in local government elections where we can directly elect our Ward councillor, the system is corrupted by having the same number of Proportional List councillors dumped on us. I have written over 35 articles on why this is patently wrong, so will not repeat myself here, but if you have an interest, take a look at my Disconnected Democracy Blog. Suffice to say that our Local Government Proportional Representation system appears to be founded on the misguided principle that having two idiots meddling in council affairs is better than having just one.
The Nelson Mandela Bay fiasco is an example of the “two idiots” analogy that also highlights everything else that is wrong with our current political dispensation. From the EFF attempting their “tail wags the dog” illusion, through every other shade of disgraceful behaviour by the ANC and EFF, to the infantile kindergarten antics of the UDM’s Mongameli Bobani, these idiots behaved shamefully. That they did so safe in the knowledge that they will not be sanctioned, is the final indictment of how far our democratic standards have fallen.
Not only has our State been captured through the actions and inactions of errant politicians but we, the electorate, have also allowed established political cabals to completely capture our democracy. The ability to vote every five years does not, on its own, make us a democracy. We must also be able to hold our elected representatives to account for every single day of their term of office, and there must be enforceable sanctions for breach of trust.
So, how do we even begin to drag our politicians back into the world of real and effective accountability? To start the ball rolling, my “To Do” list includes:
- Redefine more accountable constituency-based Electoral Systems: This is a priority as political parties, and their leaders, have demonstrated time-after-time that they cannot be trusted to put our interests above their own.
- Limit Executive powers: Our experiences with Jacob Zuma demand that we reduce the almost dictatorial powers of the President – powers that can be wielded at the drop of a hat, based on nothing more than the President’s “pleasure”.
- Define meaningful and enforceable sanctions for breaching an oath of office: Once again the Zuma years demonstrated the unlimited capacity of politicians to duck and dive away from accountability. This must be stopped, particularly when they use even more of our money to defend themselves against stealing our money in the first place.
- Align National/Provincial and Local Government Elections, all to be held simultaneously: Voting a party out at the National/Provincial level in 2019 will not change the status of that party at Municipal level – you will have to wait for the next Local Government elections in 2021 for that to happen. Service delivery is a function of all levels of government, so why hold separate elections? If we want a party out because of poor service delivery then we need them out at all levels of government at the same time, which can only happen if all three levels are elected simultaneously.
- Reduce the terms of office at all levels of government from 5 years to 4 years: This, for me, is an obvious no-brainer. We must not allow politicians the time to become “comfortable” in their positions, nor the time to hatch complicated plans such as Zuma’s State Capture project. Reducing their terms of office by 20% brings their ultimate accountability around that much faster.
- Examine whether to redefine or eliminate Provincial Governments and District Municipalities: The way they presently operate is seemingly not only as very expensive middlemen for funds flowing from central government, but also as additional and perhaps unnecessary enabling levels for corrupt politicians and officials to syphon funds into their own pockets. Removing these ineffective levels of government or increasing their powers to enable more effective governance needs to be carefully investigated.
As individuals we may feel the task of changing the political status quo is insurmountable, but as a collective I believe anything is possible. To make a significant difference, a part of the change must include the way we, as individuals, think and behave in society. Democracy involves more than just voting every five years. We must all actively engage not only with our governing structures to ensure they deliver what we want, but with each other to ensure that everyone in our fragile society gets what they need. If we all “live” democracy, then I sincerely believe we can rebuild societal trust that our politicians are working so hard to destroy.
- Graham Sell is author of the anti-PR blog Disconnected Democracy.