The Shiceka Syndrome and the Corrupting Power of the Status Trap

By Saliem Fakir · 19 Apr 2011

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Political misdemeanours don’t come with a light touch but are systemic problems engulfing the entire governance of state and electoral politics.

The indulgence sees no end and whether it will end depends on whether the ANC values its party and the people who support it. What it confesses in public, as a set of beliefs and morals, live far apart from the reality of its practice.

It is clear that just being a struggle hero alone is insufficient a credential for the self-policing of temptation that comes from the lure and attraction of the highlife.

Sicelo Shiceka has become both the poster boy for the troubling trend of status fetish and a totem for the bad omens that have crept in and gripped the ANC for a long time. It is a social disease, though, that started outside and has been allowed to grow within the ANC itself.

Shiceka, The Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, has long been a troubled man. A couple of months ago, his hotel and travel profligacy were splashed all over the newspapers. He also failed to pay his municipal bills for a Midrand home he owns while media reports contend that he is also building a new house in his rural village of Ingquza Hill.

He is clearly someone living beyond his means like many high-powered politicians who, transported by public funds, rapidly transition from the poverty trap to the status trap.

The irony of this beyond-the-means lifestyle contrasted against the poverty-stricken municipalities that the Minister is supposed to rescue cannot be more apparent.

Given the latest press exposé, Shiceka will have a hard time standing up in front of local authorities and people without services claiming that he is the man for the job.

Shiceka is not the first to be exposed. There have been other ministers too who couldn’t resist the temptation of a ritzy life. Anecdotes and press coverage on licentious public expenditure on parties, entertainment, free jazz junkets and overseas trips are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Former Minister of Communications, Siphiwe Nyanda, liked the highlife so much that he decided he would shack-up in Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel, or “Nellie” as it is popularly called, for a whole year. It cost the public close to half a million Rand to satisfy the Minister’s craving for luxury.

What prevails is not class-consciousness, but a sink into lifestyles that throw scorn at the problems of poverty and the economic challenges facing the country.

So if one Minister does it, the others must follow. 

The said Ministers could, if they felt so compelled, disallow themselves such privileges if they really considered the image and example their behaviour conveyed to the public. 

Of most concern is that fact that the justification for extravagance is not moral compunction but the refrain that the Ministerial Handbook allows it.

The rulebook problem is not limited to South Africa. In 2009, British MPs were caught out for abusing parliamentary rules on expense claims. Everybody was in on the act from rich lords to ordinary House of Commons MPs. It rivalled our own parliamentary “Travelgate” scandal.

The British scandal less described a failure of rules, as it did a failure of moral consciousness. British MPs too abused rules to claim expenses to support lifestyles they couldn’t afford. The status trap and a very slim anchoring of morals got the better of them.

And so it is back to our shores where the question is not how much Shiceka abused or took, but why it is happening. One answer rests with Shiceka himself and the other with a state that has pockets of moral dysfunction spreading like a virus because they were not stamped out when they should have been.

The first concern about the Shiceka syndrome is psychological. There is a show of weakness in the face of the status trap. Politics has become a sport of prestige as opposed to being an obsession with the needs of ordinary people.

Ministers are less likely to interact on a daily basis in circles where the poor are found. Discussions and deals are done with men and women, ostensibly of expensive taste, at luxury hotels and restaurants.

In circles like this, restraint on extravagance is a show of weakness. Neither power nor respect comes without the projection of the right wares.

Add to this the household politics.

The habits of high office spread into personal life, as they influence the lifestyles and demands of the children, the wives, extended family members and possibly a secret mistress or two. Soon the demands conflate. High office has to pay for these personal effects too. This is when the trouble starts and never ends.

It’s what got former police commissioner, Jackie Selebi, into trouble too. Selebi’s weakness for elite vanity made him vulnerable to gifts from the wrong people. His own family circumstances and challenges lathered the seduction for inappropriate gifts. He was very human in one respect, but also fell for men with crooked ways to keep up with the demands of his new lifestyle.

The second concern is that of the enabling conditions within the party and state system itself. Powerful men and women are themselves creatures of the culture that permeates their daily life.

Leadership that condones and encourages the avoidance of sanction only nurtures the spread and grip of a crippling vice. It also creates the impression of omnipotence -- their ability to do anything as they please. 

In many respects they do what they do because it is not the electorate that has the power to be guards over them, but others from the very circles that they operate in, who fail to take responsibility for the spread of the Shiceka syndrome.

They have abandoned criticism for silence. They have replaced action for inertia or simply choose to leave the sinking ship.

Those who are what C. Wright Mills once called the “power elite” think of nothing but of how to stay in power.  Those who have attained privilege are too busy fending off others who aspire to it. Their world is filled with the menace of the status trap, which is a magnet for a swarm of vices and a string of deceit.  

Not only is money wasted, but it is also not spent in the right places. Not only does it attract public service duties for the wrong reason, but it also discourages good people from entering public service. The state becomes a source of capture for everybody who feels entitled to its resources.

In these high circles, despite the pretence, there is no time for the poor.

The status trap is a powerful force. Its sources are both internal and external. Its etching into our politics will be hard to remove. When it spreads from these highflying circles to others, there will be no stopping the demise of our body politic.  

This is the disease eating at the soul of our young country and it is a tragedy those in higher circles don’t really want us to talk about because it’s shameful stuff.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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19 Apr

Native Patriot

I am a former liberation activists (UDF,MDM,ANC-MK). What you have said is entirely true in all respects. As long as the Government Watchdog (PFMA/SCOPA/Public Protector) are weakened, in 10 years South Africa will become a failed State. That is the very reason why people were fighting to stand as counselors in the upcoming municipal elections. The counselors, (nowadays) they operate as middle men (not for service delivery) but for tenders to be channeled to the chosen few within their circle (PEC/BEC). The ANC is aware of this rot and is doing nothing. This is my biggest worry. During the time of OR Tambo in exile, the ANC had its problems, but it was a highly disciplined organization. Those who were found to be collaborators/traitors were dealt with with no mercy (i.e. Imbokodo). The moral of the story is the ANC must treat those who tarnish the name of the movement as such (traitors), full stop. The ANC must stop threatening, it must start acting, swiftly. If they are going to maintain the status quo, I am sorry, we are a heading for self destruction! (in China if you waste/abuse public funds they hang you. No two ways about it).

I am currently in China right now (for almost a year) and closely observing how they do things right, the development speaks for itself. I must admit they are not perfect, but at least there is a deterrence amongst public office bearers. I rest my case.

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19 Apr

A Powerful Indicment

This is a very powerful indictment of the ANC. Read together with the Tatane debacle its clear that the organisation has long past its sell by date and that real alternatives are needed at the polls and in civil society.

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19 Apr


This is exactly right. Reminds me of the postcolony as diagnosed by Mbembe.

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