In a world of stupid politicians, sometimes the most you can hope for is the opportunity to pay someone to do the right thing.

Barely a day goes by in South Africa without someone accusing someone else of being corrupt. Newspapers are filled with scandal after scandal involving “millions” or “billions” of misappropriated funds; we remain, more than ten years after the event, completely unclear on what really transpired in the infamous “arms deal”, and the country’s current favourite whipping boy, Julius Malema, is repeatedly accused of earning money in various shady manoeuvres.

On the other side of the coin are the relentless denials: “I didn’t”, “she didn’t”, “he didn’t”, and to accuse him of such things is “indicative of counter-revolutionary, racist, white tendencies”, that kind of thing.

Apart from being bored of these exchanges, I am also two other things: worried and relived.

I’m worried because the level of this dialogue between politicians, on the one hand, and the media on the other is so banal, foolish and petulant I can only think it points to a profound lack of intelligence on both sides. To call a politician stupid is to call a fish wet. It’s more concerning that the media in the country is so easily bamboozled, so quick to react, and an active participant in fuelling the dull, mainstream perspective. Rather than critique, most of the media simply relays. From Malema’s mouth to a headline near you. Sure, it sells, but it’s the garbage in, garbage out school of journalism.

As a consequence of this two-handed plodding down Stupid Street, it feels like South Africans are actually getting stupider as a group. That worries me.

The thing that relieves me is that our politicians are open to persuasion. God help us if they were steely ideologues committed to eating tins of cat food and sticking to their principles. We are blessed with a shortage of Pol Pots or even Che Guevaras. South Africans are for sale. And that means we have a chance.

The complaints about corruption are obvious: selling political power to the highest bidder leaves open the very real possibility that the highest bidder is a dodgy, I dunno, strip-club owner or something. And this level of corruption rots the middle layers of society, creates some moderately wealthy members of the middle class, and means that I can get my car licence faster than you or pay less speeding fines because I’m willing to buy someone some “lunch”.

However, to think that power is centred on the middle of society is profoundly wrong. The very rich, almost by definition, have a vested interest in the status quo. The last thing they want is for South Africa to plunge into an economic no-man’s land filled with nationalised mines and farms owned by people whose single talent is making incendiary weapons out of Pringle’s tins. Too many rich people have too much at stake to allow this to happen.

And so they use the tools at their disposable to make sure their interests aren’t threatened. The media is, indeed, one such tool. So is legitimate lobbying, campaign contributing and so forth. The DA is perhaps not much more than an official representation of wealthy views and interests in parliament.

But when all else fails, making sure there’s something in it for the other guy is always an option. And when this option is exercised by people who, broadly speaking, have society’s interests at heart, we shouldn’t be getting all morally twitchy about it. We should be celebrating it and being grateful that this option is open.

You may dispute that the mega-wealthy have society’s interests at heart, but in a capitalist country on which they depend for their continued wealth, you are wrong. They aren’t doing it for you, of course, but they are keeping the machine going. Sometimes the machine breaks — as in the recent economic meltdown — but then this isn’t an argument about capitalism’s virtues or vices. That’s for another forum. This is about stability versus chaos. And the rich want stability.

It is, of course, in our natures to want honest, smart politicians who will lead us into a bright new future. And there are, fortunately, some of these in the mix. But worldwide they are few and far between. Being a politician is a kind of “booby prize” job, at best a stepping stone to true wealth as an international businessman (George HW Bush, for example); a lush post at Goldman Sachs (Tito Mboweni) or a philanthropist and sought-after speaker (Bill Clinton). The men in South African who have genuinely profited from the post-apartheid zeitgeist are not politicians, at least any more. Cyril Ramaphosa is the obvious example. But Patrice Motsepe is perhaps the best.

And so if you wind up in politics and want to get rich you’d better either have a plan or a malleable conscience. We are overflowing with the latter variety and it is this that will steer us, safely, through the course of the coming years.


  • Jarred Cinman is software director at Cambrient, South Africa's leading developer of web applications. He co-founded Johannesburg's first professional web development company and was one of the founders of VWV Interactive, for many years the premier creative web business in the country, winning numerous Loeries and various international awards. In 2001, Jarred co-founded Cambrient, which has, in its six-year history, built the leading local content management system and serviced an impressive list of corporate customers. Cambrient Contentsuite is also the engine behind Moneyweb.


Jarred Cinman

Jarred Cinman is software director at Cambrient, South Africa's leading developer of web applications. He co-founded Johannesburg's first professional web development company and was one of the founders...

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