It's a story so predictable that on strict news values alone it almost shouldn't be a news story. A senior political leader, thought to be on her way out, premier of a small province far away in an unremarkable corner of the country, buys herself a nice new shiny car. Even the model is so predictable. Put your hand up if you didn't know it was a BMW? And while we haven't seen a picture yet, you can bet any colour you like, so long as it's black. In this case, the premier concerned is Thandi Modise. The province is the North West (the place where Marikana happened, in case you've forgotten) and the price tag? R1.3 million. What is it with the ANC and cars? By STEPHEN GROOTES.
Say it out aloud. One point three million Rands. It has a certain ring about it. It’s more money than the average price of a house in South Africa, which is something most people pay off over twenty years or more. It’s more money certainly that most of us will ever see in one place at one time.
You have to ask: What is it with the ANC and cars? Seriously. Two years ago the DA submitted a series of Parliamentary Questions in which it simply asked the same cut and pasted question: What kind of car(s) is the relevant minister driven around in, what model is/are they and how much did it/they cost? Slowly, in everlasting proof that the drip-drip approach really works in politics, the ANC released the results and got about a month of headlines as well as few political facts no one has forgotten – like the one that Comrade Blade Nzimande got two BMWs at once.
However, the arguments that have come from Modise’s office are just plain embarrassing. The North West’s spokesperson, Lesiba Kgelwe, has taken great pains, and we really do mean great pains, to point out that a) it was not Modise herself who ordered the car, but the provincial department of Public Works and Transport. And that b) the car was ordered long before Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan told ministers to cut up the credit cards and stop the bling.
However, that’s not really the issue at all. No one cares about the legality of the apparently un-revisable Ministerial Handbook that allows an official to purchase a car with our money up to the value of 70% of their salary.
What we care about is why is it necessary to take up the full value allowable?
And why the BMW?
If you had the time, the petrol-head brother and the inclination to draw up a list of all the sedans sold in South Africa, you would be busy for a couple of days. There are many, many models. Everything from the Tazz to the Bentley. And no, Madam Premier, we don’t expect you to fit you and your staff into a Tazz. Although we wouldn’t mind watching you try… But how about a Honda Accord? Or, if it just has to be German, how about one of the dozens of Volkswagens, perhaps a Passat? You could call it a cheap Audi if you had to.
Or, dare we mention, that wonderful luxury car of a certain size, called a Lexus…
Why the Lexus you may ask? What makes it different from all the others? Surely it’s no bigger, safer or more reliable? Well Madam, this is not the motoring section of this website. Deon Schoeman is in charge of that, and you should ask him. But we do have a political answer for you.
Because Pravin Gordhan drives one.
And he’s still around with us, safe, hale and hearty. And, last time we checked, he seemed to be able to drive around in a car made in…gasp! Japan….and still keep his ministerial dignity. In fact, if you asked us, we would say that he has kept it really rather well, thank you.
The fact is, nothing really shows the disconnect between the governors and the governed, or should we say the rulers and the ruled, than this business about cars. Somehow it seems that to attack a minister’s or premier’s choice of car is get some inevitable response about whether “you expect me to ride around on a bicycle”.
Which immediately reminds us that in fact British Prime Minister, David Cameron, used to get around on his bike quite happily, when he was leader of the opposition in the UK. The slightly inevitable punchline is that he was then caught with a car driving behind him, to “carry his papers”. Which may actually strengthen Modise’s case a bit. But not much.
But we all know that the real reason Thandi Modise has bought herself a brand spanking new BMW. Because she can. Her people will try to spin some rubbish about how she had nothing to do with it, and shame, she is a hostage to her lowly officials. Which is a bit like saying you had no idea a fire-pool was being built on your property until you accidentally stumbled across it on the front page of the Mail and Guardian left on Mac’s desk one morning.
But the upshot is, nothing will happen. This will be a story for a couple of days, the DA in the North West’s email account will be a little more active than usual, and then we will all forget it, because it will be replaced by another, juicier and newer scandal.
Having said that, one of the reasons this is a story, is because of Gordhan’s Lexus. Because sometimes you just need one person to do something, preferably something symbolic, and it becomes really powerful. Because it’s not Helen Zille saying Modise is wrong, shouting it from the Land of the Flat Mountain. It’s Gordhan. And he doesn’t have to actually say anything. He just has to be driven around in his Lexus, going about his daily business.
If you go to the North West Province, you will know that it is about more than Marikana. It’s one of those provinces where rural poverty smacks you in the face. Where people born there have life chances that seem to be much poorer than if they were born in Gauteng or the Western Cape. Where there doesn’t seem to be much political progress, where service delivery doesn’t really mean anything.
This is a province where it is plain to see that the politics is just broken. Where the ANC loses a municipality (Tlokwe) because some of its own office-bearers just get gatvol. Where the provincial secretary of the ANC himself was suspended. Where another ANC provincial office bearer got shot. Where, you guessed it, an another ANC provincial office bearer gets accused of shooting the guy from the previous sentence. And where different factions of the party break up each others meetings with sjamboks and violence.
But that’s not going to bother Thandi Modise. She’s got a new set of wheels. And they’re well-pimped too. DM
Grootes is the Senior Political Reporter for Eyewitness News, and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He’s also the author of SA Politics Unspun. He drives a family car. Okay, it’s an SUV. But he paid for it himself. And we’re really not making this up, but he is trying to ride to work as often as he can.
Photo: Thandi Modise after being voted deputy secretary-general during the ANC’s national conference in Polokwane, Tuesday, 18 December 2007. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA.
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí