The confirmation by the government that Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers do not pay for the electricity and water consumed at their private residences appears to once more underscore the difference in the lives between those in government and everyone else. While politicians’ existence in a bubble has been the norm for many years, a combination of constituencies that normally disagree with one another may now put the SA government under more pressure than ever before.
As the sheer desperation to survive that many feel as the pandemic subsides, the lives of Cabinet ministers have not changed that much.
That infuriating fact makes it virtually impossible for the government to defend both this practice, especially when ministers, the deputy president and the President are all demanding that citizens pay for what they consume, and why so many political leaders are telling people to do as they say, not as they do.
Last week DA MP Leon Schreiber said in public that changes to the Ministerial Handbook meant that ministers and deputy ministers would not have to pay for the electricity and water consumed on their properties. He also claimed that these properties were not affected by load shedding.
On Monday evening the government issued a statement in which it attempted to clarify the position. In short, it said that the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure paid for the electricity and water consumed at the official residences of ministers and deputy ministers, but that ministers and deputy ministers had to pay for the electricity and water consumed at their private properties.
It also denied that these residences were exempt from load shedding.
Perks for the powerful
However, the real amount paid for those in these positions is much higher than a simple lights and water bill.
First, a Cabinet minister earns R2,473,682 a year. A deputy minister earns R2,037,129.
Then there are the homes, the official residences. Each of these people will have one in Cape Town and one in Tshwane.
The cost of this is difficult to calculate, but will come from the budget of the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure.
Then there is another big cost — security.
The budget for what is called “VIP Security” comes to R3.122-billion for this financial year. And it is true that for several years the VIP security budget has been higher than the budget given to land reform.
But not all of that is spent on Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers. Some will go to the President, the deputy president and others in government. And some will go to others who also have the benefit of a security detail, such as EFF leader Julius Malema.
A rough calculation, based on a Cabinet of 28 ministers and 28 deputy ministers suggests that there is a total salary bill of R126,622,708 a year.
This is before the cost of security, the two residences, and then the relatively small detail which has started this furore, the payment of lights and water bills.
However, the provision of electricity goes further than that. Because while it is true that their official residences are not exempt from load shedding, the government has confirmed in the recent past that it has paid for generators for these homes.
The symbolic power of this is massive. And perhaps bigger than it has ever been before.
Mainly because of the statements by the politicians involved.
Just in July this year, during his announcement about energy reforms, President Cyril Ramaphosa told the nation that “We must pay for services and prevent illegal connections.”
Deputy President David Mabuza has said repeatedly that people must pay for the services they consume. In 2019 he said, “It’s a good culture that we must teach ourselves: pay for services that you have consumed”.
In the meantime, while Ramaphosa, Mabuza, and others are lecturing the nation about paying for their services, the nation is often not receiving services at all.
The intense rolling blackouts suffered during this past winter imposed misery on many millions of people. But it is clear that this did not apply to Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers. And to Ramaphosa and Mabuza.
Meanwhile, it is absolutely certain that it did apply to some of those who have taken an oath to protect our borders. Earlier this year, the Sunday Times reported how soldiers at the Murrayhill military base in Tshwane have to queue outside to wash themselves from an outside Jojo tank. There is also a shortage of electricity in the area because of cable theft.
Again, not a problem for Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers.
Hungrier, colder, darker
At the same time, the lived experience of so many millions of people in our country is getting hungrier, colder and darker.
There is much evidence to show that many are battling just to survive. Anyone who has heard of the difficulties people experience just to get the R350 monthly social relief of distress grant will understand just how desperate people are.
And that is just to live on R350 a month.
While this issue has immense political power, this is not the first time there have been questions about the amount of government money spent on Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers.
In 2009, as Jacob Zuma was taking over as president, it emerged that each of his new Cabinet ministers was receiving not one, but two new luxury cars. Again, there was one in Tshwane and one in Cape Town. While there was outrage at the time, nothing changed.
There have been other, sometimes almost regular, scandals with the same theme. Time and time again there have been questions about the salaries paid to mayors, or city managers, or how those running tiny rural municipalities have been given luxury SUVs to traverse the roads made impassable by their governance.
But even R250-million spent on Zuma’s Nkandla residence, while outrageous, was not enough to force change.
This time may be different, this issue may in fact have more power than before, partly because the ANC is politically weaker than at any time since 1994.
There also appear to be greater demands for accountability — the era in which citizens simply accept the words of politicians feels very much over. People now demand action.
But it may also be because, as Cosatu’s Sizwe Pamla pointed out this week, the lives Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers lead has insulated them from the problems ordinary people face. And thus they are almost surprised when people are so angry at their lived experience.
Put simply, if you have no idea what rolling blackouts are like, there’s less urgency to fix the problem.
But there may also be another dynamic about the era we in live now.
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As the analyst Angelo Fick pointed out on Newzroom Afrika on Wednesday afternoon, many voters now do not have a strong memory of living through the apartheid era. For them, the promises and achievements of the liberation movement from that era mean much less than they do to those who do have those strong memories.
Rather, they blame their current situation on those who are in power now. To put it more directly, they blame the ANC for poor governance, and hold it responsible for the state of our society now.
This may also explain how this story, which started with the DA, has angered Cosatu to such a great extent. These organisations represent very different constituencies, and yet these constituencies are united in their revolt.
Despite all of this, it is still not known if the government is listening, that anyone within the ANC’s bubble really understands why people are so angry and how deep is the resentment. It is difficult to hear the people’s cries from ivory towers.
This entire issue may become more powerful ahead of the 2024 elections. In the past, many ANC politicians could show that they could almost feel and understand the pain of voters. They would even dress in tracksuits for the party conferences.
That charade appears to be impossible to perform anymore — they have simply become too distant from their own nation. DM