Zuma’s inauguration: How much money is too much?

On Friday morning I was fortunate enough to hear Cheryl Carolus talking at a women’s leadership conference. I’ve long admired her no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-hip approach to everything, so I confess I hung on to every word.

And Carolus doesn’t mince her words. She tackled several issues, from the dearth of women premiers appointed after the election, to the so-called confidence gap, to some of the ways women could improve the way they navigated society at large.

But one of the things that surfaced several times was the huge inequality between rich and poor. We should be ashamed, she said, that Oxfam had found that South Africa was the most unequal society in the world when it came to income. The report is especially damning when you read it and realise that the gap has actually widened since the demise of apartheid. That, Carolus said, really needed to be addressed.

She raised a concept she called “enoughness”, something she said she used despite its lack of grammatical correctness. And simply put, enoughness was summed up in a question she asked more than once during her talk to the super-earners out there: “Just how many millions can you really spend? How many luxury cars do you really need?”

Now, don’t misunderstand: she wasn’t advocating that everyone earn the same, or that CEOs and other top executives not be well-paid. She wasn’t against anyone earning well, or having a lovely house and a nice car.

What she was pointing to, though, was the excess. The way we measure success is troublesome, she said – the bling, the crass materialism, the conspicuous consumerism.

Compare that with how the majority of people live in South Africa, and it’s very difficult to argue with her. Especially if you consider that the Dutch and Norwegian prime ministers go to work on their bicycles and compare them to our blue-light brigades and the Compound That Shall Not Be Named …

As I drove home on Friday evening, the posters were up announcing the presidential inauguration, the budget for which was R120-million, and I admit, my shoulders slumped a little. Because there it was again – the bling, the superficial preening, the wasteful, wasteful excess. And that’s assuming they stuck to the budget.

Put R120-million in the hands of someone like Carolus and I can guarantee you it wouldn’t be spent on pomp and circumstance. It would be spent on uplifting the needy somewhere it could make an impact. How much electrification, or sanitation or education could R120-million pay for, I wondered.

Besides, maybe I’m just getting old, but I feel like I’m past all of this grand ceremonial spectacle. To me it feels like a hangover from a patriarchal, colonial, frankly outdated past: “Look at all my armies! See the guns! See how powerful and virile and strong I am!” And hopefully that will distract you from that hungry family over there, living in squalor and hopelessness.

So I decided I wouldn’t watch the inauguration on Saturday. I know it’s a bit of a useless protest, but it felt right to me. Watching would have made me feel complicit in the mismanagement of government funds we see every day. Complicit in furthering the income gap.

And part of me wished that all of us had stayed away from the ceremony, that our TVs were all tuned to something else on the day, that the lawns at the Union Buildings had been completely empty. That might have sent a message, I think.

Because an inauguration doesn’t change the election results. It doesn’t change who the president is. The world doesn’t need a huge ceremony to know who our government is for the next five years – they have Sky and CNN and the BBC for that. Whether or not President Jacob Zuma had a huge inauguration witnessed by hundreds of dignitaries, the fact remains – he is still president of the most unequal society in the world.

Now there’ll just be R120-million less to spend on rectifying that.

Image – Cheryl Carolus (Gallo)