A few months after the emerging Vukuzakhe contractors donated a R1 million Mercedes-Benz to the Minister of Transport Sibusiso Ndebele, the Minister for Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande has reignited the debate about high-profile politicians and their cars.
In another incident, the SACP and the relevant government department have defended the purchase of Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande's BMW, while Cosatu has criticised the "unnecessary expenditure". In its press statement, the department is at pains to explain that it "was concerned by the high costs of renting a vehicle and decided that one should be purchased". The R1.1 million price tag is contextualised by emphasising that it was a showroom vehicle obtained at a "discount price". Not discounted enough, though, for Cosatu, which "congratulates Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan on his decision to buy a modest Lexus car for R557 673". The SACP supports the purchase of the BMW based on safety and security grounds. Presumably safety and security in this context refers to the general protection offered by ABS brakes and airbags, and not protection against the risk of hijacking.
And - of course - it is emphasised by all that the transaction was in line with departmental policy. This argument is reminiscent of that used by Transport Minister Ndebele, who, on receiving a donated car, initially relied on clause Clause 4.2 of the Executive Code of Ethics which states that "when a member, in the course of the member's duties, has received or has been offered a gift with a value of more than R1 000, the member must request permission from the president to retain or accept the gift". The fact that his gift was a thousand times more expensive than the cut-off amount never presented a problem, and after consultation with the President, who advised him to follow the procedures stipulated (a bit of a circular argument, because the procedures stipulated that he should consult the President), he "nevertheless" decided to return the gift.
Few people will deny that it is very nice to drive an expensive car if someone else is paying. However, the reliance on policies and procedures to justify this gift is indicative of a reluctance to engage with the ethical issues at stake here. Compliance does not necessarily demonstrate ethical behaviour, and therefore a review of the policies is only a part of addressing the issue. A review of the Executive Code of Ethics is perhaps more necessary than a review of the vehicle procurement policy. The Executive Code addresses conflicts of interest and clear guidelines are required - for instance, from an ethical perspective, a R1 million gift from a potential supplier is more problematic than one funded by the tax payer.
Austerity measures currently considered by government might force all ministers to buy "modest" cars of half a million rand, rather than splashing out at the top end of the scale. But perhaps there is a need for more flexibility and an emphasis on the values that underpin the government's commitment to equality, transformation and the fight against poverty. The current policy states that ministers are entitled to a vehicle equivalent in value to 70% of their annual salary. Consider what would happen if this limit is retained or only slightly reduced, but complemented with strict environmental impact and safety requirements as well as a clause that would allow ministers to donate the difference between the upper limit and the actual cost of the vehicle to a scholarship fund for students. Such a policy will not encourage mindless compliance. Government ministers will still be able to buy a comfortable (and safe) car that only a very small percentage of the population can afford, while contributing millions of rands of taxpayers' money to society.
In his press statement Minister Ndebele lamented that the focus on his car created an unwelcome distraction from his portfolio. This is true. People should guard against focusing on such (ethical) issues for too long. A race to the bottom to see who can drive the cheapest car will certainly be counter-productive as well. The sooner we can move the focus from the price tag of a minister's car to the performance of his or her department, the better it will be for the country.
Daniel Malan is Head of the Unit for Corporate Governance in Africa at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. The views and opinions of the author do not necessary reflect those of the University of Stellenbosch Business School. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared in the Business Day on 25 September 2009.