Does South Africa need a rich President?

Does South Africa need a rich President? Ferial Haffajee, editor of the City Press, says “Yes.” Gayton McKenzie, the self-described millionaire and former bank robber says “No.” And, he adds, “Only a man who understands what poverty is is able to overcome the challenge it poses since he knows – intimately – his enemy.”



Does SA need a rich president?

Ferial Haffajee (City Press, 2012-04-22)


South Africa’s general discomfort with black wealth was apparent in the response to news that businessman and political leader Cyril Ramaphosa was a buffalo soldier too.

We reported last Sunday that Ramaphosa had bid R19.5?million for a rare buffalo with a magnificent set of genes and horns.

The responses I read were generally of a tut-tut variety. Why didn’t he spend it on orphanages? Or the general poor? Or on good works?

Nobody said the same about Jaco Troskie and his dad, Boet, who took the cow by the horns for R20?million. Generally, black and white South Africans are uneasy with black money.

Some said he had sold out on his trade union history – Ramaphosa is still regarded as the best leader of the National Union of Mineworkers. How had he sold out, I wondered.

We are so locked into class positions and a romanticisation of workers that I find most of my newly middle-class friends will decry their social mobility. Perhaps it is because of the stranglehold that socialism still holds over our political rhetoric.

The response was generally the same when it was announced that Ramaphosa had taken a big bite of the local McDonald’s franchise operation.

By way of a disclaimer, I tweeted that it was a sad day that he had turned burger maker, but that was more because I think he would be a great president.

It’s not hard to put a bit of meat between a bun; it’s far tougher to run a country with so much latent potential.

Our collective noses in Ramaphosa’s balance sheets explains why he is unlikely to take a run at the ANC presidency, though he is being pushed to do so by both teams running the leadership race for the ANC national conference in Mangaung in December.

The poor man doesn’t want his wealth be the subject of our distributive and liberal instincts. And why should it be? Ramaphosa’s Shanduka Foundation is a big and innovative philanthropic organisation that offers interesting programmes. He gives a lot, but he doesn’t do so loudly.

I think we should embrace his buffalo pockets. It is great to have a president who has his own money. A man or woman of independent means will be a focused leader who is not worried about what will happen at the end of two terms when a life of comfort and statesmanship comes to an end.

I think one of the reasons President Jacob Zuma wants a second term, though he said he would stay for only one, is that it’s pesky to take a commercial flight after getting used to your own jet.

US President Barack Obama may have warned eloquently about the dangers of becoming trapped in the presidential bubble, but there’s a certain swag in having your every need taken care of.

And while we normal drivers may simply abhor the blue-light convoys that carry our excellencies, put yourself on the other side of that hooter and imagine the pure joy of doing Joburg to Pretoria in 20 minutes any time of day.

There’s also the other matter of having your familial and spousal budgets picked up by the public purse.

A rich president would do the job for love and ambition, not for money.

Africa’s ambitions are stymied by the dynastic quality of First Life. Many of the finest economies have resources locked up by presidents ensuring that their families and extended networks get the best deals from growing economies.

Our president has spent a fair bit of time securing deals for his own children and extended networks, no doubt with an eye to his growing family and shortening term in office.

It would only be the most naive among us who think that his nephew Khulubuse Zuma’s expanding empire has not been assisted by a filial word in an ear here and there.

A rich president wouldn’t worry about networks and patronage as he or she wouldn’t need to do any favours for anybody.

He or she could simply focus on the job at hand and govern.



Does SA need a rich president?

Gayton McKenzie (City Press, 2012-04-22)


Besides the fact that it is probably next to impossible for someone who is dirt poor to suddenly get elected state president, this debate is more about whether the person will find that he or she actually needs the salary.

Sure, the salary is not bad, although even I have been paid more for doing far less in the private sector. And if in fact the president does need the salary, is this a good or bad thing?

Perhaps the idea is that a man with money will be less likely to be bribed once in office and perhaps be less eager to plunder public coffers. The problem, however, with this kind of thinking is that a rich man may already be owned by big business, and without the need for business to even have to make the effort to corrupt him. How are we to know?

There are endless examples in our history of rich men coming to power (rich men coming to power are in fact the norm) and then abusing that power to become even richer, and make their friends even richer.

In the USw America, for example, government decisions overwhelmingly favour big business and not everyday, average Americans.

Although Harvard-educated Barack Obama was not a poor man, half of his 2008 campaign contributions came from everyday, average and middle-class Americans who pledged small and big amounts to see him bring about change.

President Obama has been noticeably trying to make a difference to the lives of these people. He wasn’t born rich, wasn’t always rich, and without his salary, I doubt he would carry on doing the job.

And why should he?

Donald Trump has tried to run for US president from time to time. Despite his popularity, he always fails. He just doesn’t have the muscle born from years of political struggle.

Globally, heads of states are famously remunerated quite poorly. Tony Blair’s wife earned more than he did. She was a barrister; he was the prime minister.

He needed that money. He was a professional politician and had worked his way up the ranks. Getting the salary and the pension, albeit a humble one, was his reward for a lifetime of service to the state.

In 1997, India elected KR Narayanan, who came from India’s lowest caste, the Untouchables. This undid centuries of discrimination, but social change is still needed. South Africa is the same. Only a man who understands what poverty is is able to overcome the challenge it poses since he knows – intimately – his enemy.

Statistically, to stand a chance of being rich, you have to come from a rich family. Or you have to be an exceptional human being whose gift lies in making money. Being able to make money does not guarantee that you will be a good human being, and Ferial’s qualification that doing it for “the love” is no reassurance either.

A president who leads “out of love” may be very reluctant to step down, because he “loves” what he does too much. In any case, love is an irrational thing, and who wants someone irrational in charge?

The best presidents are often those who are reluctant to take the job because they know it’s one hell of a tough job, and it’s a largely thankless task. To be a crummy dictator – well, now, that’s easy. I would love to be a dictator. I would hate to be a long-suffering servant of the people.

And that is why a president should need the salary we pay him. He is a public servant.

He works for us. If he doesn’t do a good job, he might in any case go on a fat pension for the rest of his days, but if we so demand, we could impeach him.
A president who doesn’t need or care for the salary we pay him may just not need or care for us.

The bottom line is that a rich person could be as great or even a greater president than one from poor, humble stock. But to simply presuppose being rich as a matter of principle is something that smacks of class discrimination. And class discrimination leads to civil war.

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