Stop stealing, and start serving

SA’s leaders would do well to emulate Uruguay’s president, who is as humble as he is effective.

A recent conversation I had with a farmer shows how corruption is preying on everyone’s mind. While talking about her agricultural woes, she rapidly turned to how greedy politicians are abusing state funds – often monies that are earmarked for development of the poor.

Inevitably, Nkandla popped up and we asked ourselves why the president was building himself a bunker. Is he preparing for what happened to certain heads of states to our north who used their countries’ resources to enrich themselves and their families? I expect only time will tell. On the way back, I reflected on a conversation I had had the day before with ANC MP and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Portfolio Committee member Salam Abram.

He had told me in no uncertain terms that the agriculture department was dysfunctional and needed a revamp. He said that some officials had to be replaced with others who had the will to serve the people. There was no will to do anything in that department, he said bluntly. I suppose this is what happens when people become salary takers. As I’ve written in this column before, many of our political leaders fail to understand that they have been appointed to serve the people, not the other way round.

A president of the people
Many of our politicians could learn a great deal from the president of Uruguay, José Mujica, known by his countrymen as Pepe. This extraordinary man is probably the world’s poorest and most generous political leader. Apparently, he donates nearly 90% of his US$150 000 (R1,3 million) annual salary to charity. That leaves him about US$1 500 (R13 000) a month. “I do fine with that amount; I have to do fine, because there are many Uruguayans who live with much less,” he was quoted as saying.

Show me one politician in this country who can utter those words and I’ll show you a snake’s knee. Mujica lives on a farm that belongs to his wife, Lucía Topolansky, and the couple grow vegetables and flowers commercially. He owns a 1987 VW Beetle, which he drives himself, and his official car is a Chevrolet Corsa. Like our politicians, Mujica fought for his country’s liberation as a guerrilla and was a political prisoner for 14 years, but he does not feel that he needs to be rewarded with tenders or the right to steal from the poor. He continues to serve his people selflessly.

Mujica was minister of livestock, agriculture and fisheries from 2005 until 2008. Under his leadership, Uruguay’s agricultural sector became stable and prosperous, and today it accounts for 70% of the country’s exports. There are 13 million cattle and 3 million people; this compares with South Africa’s 13 million cattle and 52 million people. It seems that you don’t have to build yourself a bunker, live it up in fancy hotels, drive an ego-boosting 4×4 or boost your private business with public funds to be an effective, respected leader. You simply have to take seriously the true meaning of your job title: public servant.