What is it with unions? Why do they want to stick their noses into everybody’s private business? And why is it such a good political idea?
Perhaps the most hopeful plea prior to last week’s State of the Nation speech was Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s appeal for a “lifestyle audit” of politicians. He didn’t get it.
However, once you get past the revulsion of the notion of a government that pries into the embarrassing nooks of your private life, you can’t help wondering whether a “lifestyle audit” wouldn’t have some utility if it were confined to our beloved legislative representatives.
This is precisely what Vavi had in mind; not a generalised invasion of privacy, but a selective peek into whether politicians are living the high life while those around them suffer.
Vavi himself, despite being the head of an organisation which has more than a million members, by all accounts lives a relatively modest lifestyle on a salary of about R500,000 a year.
He told the Sowetan that the intention of the “lifestyle audit” was to bring an end to “bling” politicians once and for all.
“It would be very interesting to establish how some officials could afford more than one mansion, holiday homes and expensive holidays. We call on all ministers and senior public servants to submit to this audit as part of their commitment to transparency and clean governance,” Vavi said.
Labour movements around the world have typically included a strong element of unionists posing for pictures on the moral high ground, underpinned by a kind of sour, grumbling irritation with the rich. Cynics would say it verges on jealousy. Supporters would say when you see the gratuitous greed that characterises our society, it’s absolutely justified.
Yet South African politicians seem oblivious to the pain and irritation they cause when they flaunt their expensive cars, live their lavish lifestyles and wear bling-style clothes. So it’s hard to condemn Vavi’s suggestion.
Financial overextension is really the first step toward being bribed or at least being open to bribery and corruption. Arguably, the Travelgate scandal, which festered over the past few years, was a consequence of precisely this problem – people on modest salaries living immodestly.
Yet, the whole plan crumbles when you think about what would be required practically.
The Daily Maverick asked Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven if there wasn’t something insidious about intrusions into politicians’ financial accounts. His answer was that the law already provides for circumstances in which the state can examine the financial affairs of citizens, like money laundering legislation.
But this legislation is only applicable if the state has what Americans call “reasonable cause”, in other words sufficient information and supposition to breach citizens’ right to privacy. Yes, said Craven, but Cosatu isn’t looking for generalised intrusion; it’s seeking to ask the question when it’s obvious that a politician’s lifestyle is beyond what they are technically able to afford.
But, practically, how would you do that? “Oh I don’t know,” Craven said, “The lawyers would have to work that out.”
Lifestyle audits might not be the answer, but the idea is rooted in a real problem. For all kinds of reasons, politicians in South Africa are seemingly just not accountable, not to anyone.
The non-constituency system means politicians don’t have to face constituents individually. The ANC’s huge majority makes them immune and their personal lives are irrelevant – unless the organisation itself seeks to impose a sanction of some sort.
But if the whole organisation is “bling-orientated”, then it’s open season for using your political status as a kind of calling card and a loss leader for your business interests.
And who do we know who adopted that kind of approach to their political office?
By Tim Cohen
"I know of a cure for everything: salt water...in one way or the other. Sweat or tears or the salt sea." ~ Karen Blixen