Cyril, lead by example

FILE PHOTO: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa gestures next to his deputy David Mabuza as Finance Minister Tito Mboweni delivers his budget speech at Parliament in Cape Town

More successful developing countries are invariably those where Cabinets are smaller, leaders live modestly and behave humbly. Poor developing and African countries, with high levels of corruption and where governments’ lack the political will to govern in the widest public interest have often had the largest Cabinets, leaders have large security details and live the bling life in conspicuous mansions.

Almost every African country, bar Botswana, Cape Verde and Mauritius have large Cabinets, every minister being paid far beyond the average corporate executive salary and having large security details.  Not surprisingly, since independence, these three countries have been the economically successful, peaceful and democratic, compared to all other African countries.

Size of Cabinets is determined by the population of a country and the level of government professionalism, productivity and honesty. South Africa’s Cabinet is now made up of 64 members. Under former President Jacob Zuma it was 72 members. President Thabo Mbeki’s Cabinet had 50 members. South Africa is ranked 30th by the size of economy, as measured in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country during one year. South Africa’s population is 55 million.

For its population and economic size, South Africa’s Cabinet should be at most 18 people. South Korea, with 51million people and being the 11 largest economies in the world has a Cabinet size of 20 people.  At one point in the 1980s South Korea’s Cabinet consisted of at most 12 people. If one cuts to the chase, developing countries with large Cabinets mostly do so for patronage, corruption and self-enrichment purposes.

Sadly, learning from other developing countries, the larger the Cabinet, the greater the chances in a country to have public service delivery failure, development failure and see an explosion of corruption.

More successful developing countries have also less executive bling. Former Uruguay President Jose Mujica while president lived on a modest farm, gave his salary to charity and drove a battered Volkswagen beetle. He only had one bodyguard, who occasionally doubled up as his driver. I had the great fortune of seeing the humble, honest and caring Mujica close-up in action while he was still president.

Uruguay is a beacon in Latin America, with its middle class largest,  representing 60% of the population, now the largest middle class of any country in the region.  It has the lowest levels of inequality, poverty and corruption in Latin America, or of any developing country. The efficiency in the delivery of public services such as water, education and electricity is at levels most developing countries can only dream of. The country’s economy averaged 4.1% growth rates between 2003 and 2018, even when neighbours such as Argentina and Brazil plunged into recession.

In Africa, the immediate post-independence leaders of Botswana stand out in their humbleness. Both Seretse Khama and Quett Masire, the two immediate post-independence leaders lived in the humble houses they were born in, stood in queues like ordinary citizens – rather than jumping the queue because they are “leaders”, and drove modest cars. Botswana has had the most consistent economic growth since independence, have been the most peaceful African country and among the least corrupt.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa must cut the executive bling. It must be compulsory for ANC leaders to live in modest homes like their majority black and poor supporters.  

Elected representatives must live with the “people”, not in the suburbs, so they can daily experience the crime, poverty and desperation of their “people”.  Elected representatives must also use public transport, such as mini-bus taxis, trains and buses. Elected representatives must be compelled to use public hospitals, public schools and other public services just like the majority of their supporters. The salaries of the executive and elected representatives must be cut to say, the levels of teachers or nurses.

Elected representatives should also drive in the cheapest cars available – a cap must be set on the prices of the cars available to them, say, R300 000. Every Cabinet minister should only have one bodyguard – if necessary. They must prove why they specifically want to have a bodyguard.

“Blue light brigades”, the large entourages with multiple security of Cabinet minister and low-level elected officials should be abolished.  Elected officials must not get right of way in the traffic. They must sit frustratingly in the traffic, just like any other citizen.

All elected officials must travel in economy, the so-called “cattle class”, just like “the people”, they profess to represent. Unless we reduce the social distance between elected represented and high-ranking public officials and ordinary people, and the elected and high-ranking public officials experience similar daily indignities, sufferings and frustrations of hard-pressed South Africans, they will unlikely tackle South Africa’s mounting with the urgency it deserves.

William Gumede is Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation (; and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).