Over the past two weeks I have been reading George R R Martin’s novel, A Clash of Kings, and watching the series that it spawned, A Game of Thrones.

It’s an impressive and intoxicating world to be caught up in, filled with intrigue, political manoeuvring, corruption, and heady doses of pomp and circumstance.

A small coterie of lords and ladies live lavish lives playing dress-up, while the aptly named small folk struggle through life doing hard labour – mostly for the benefit of their lords and ladies and, ultimately, the bearer of the crown in the capital, King’s Landing.

While the series clearly draws inspiration from medieval Europe, I could not help but see startling parallels between the world of Westeros and our own Republic right here at home; between a parasitic, consumption-oriented elite and our own small folk – the millions of South Africans forced to subsist on crumbs while a disconnected political elite live ostentatious lives of greed and corruption. 

Who can forget the prim, sometimes plump, but always ornately and expensively dressed Members of Parliament arriving in expensive and invariably German-made cars for the opening of Parliament, then sauntering along the red carpet towards their own version of the small council?

In early 2020, just before our lockdown began, outgoing EFF MP Godrich Gardee bitterly complained that MPs could not even afford to send their children to university and called his salary ‘most disgusting’, on top of having to work ‘far from home’. This was after Sunday Times journalist Andisiwe Makinana tweeted that MPs paid Parliament just under R400 to rent their lavish and fully furnished three-bedroom villas in Cape Town’s parliamentary village. (If only ordinary South Africans had such a sweet deal.) Gardee was promptly backed up by the UDM’s Nqabayomzi Kwankwa of ‘personal assistant’ fame – he having once also bitterly complained about the travesty of MPs not being given personal assistants. 

Profound lack of self-awareness

This sense of entitlement and profound lack of self-awareness is playing out in the context of a country in which the lowest-paid MPs get paid R1.13 million a year, plus benefits (an eye-watering list that includes 88 free single flights for themselves and their dependants). And this in a country in which half the population is classified as ‘Underclass & Unemployed’ by Statistics South Africa, and MPs themselves, earning as they do more than R60 000 a month, are classed as ‘Elite’.

This infuriating tendency towards entitlement and lack of self-awareness does not end with MPs, but has also filtered down to general government employees. In the midst of a pandemic and its associated lockdowns – and at a time when government has been taking in less revenue – they demanded a 4%-plus-inflation (inflation is at 3%) salary increase, as well as other perks such as a R2 500 monthly housing allowance, while many South Africans were losing jobs, taking massive pay cuts, or closing their small businesses.

It is telling that when President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the topic of MPs’ salaries, he did not use any of the language of solidarity he so freely uses when addressing ordinary South Africans, because he himself, like Gardee, was concerned about MPs struggling to make ends meet.

All of this signifies a deeper problem with our elites and public sector workers whose lives and incomes reflect a profound disconnection from the real economy. They do not have the worries or struggles of South Africans who don’t have the job security of a government official, or the sense of entitlement to demand above-inflation increases, no matter the circumstances in the economy.

Highest in the world

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the salary bill for state employees in South Africa, at more than 14% of GDP in 2015, is the highest in the world. Other countries at a similar level of development paid public employees between 5% and 7% of GDP.

This consumption-driven spending was made possible by the government’s taxing business and the professional classes as well as ratcheting up public debt and creating credit.

It transferred vast resources from production in the real economy to consumption by households and by the state; household consumption rose sharply as a proportion of GDP.

This is most devastatingly evident in the hollowing out of local economies outside our major cities and, in limited instances, our wealthy mining towns. State employees in these municipalities are not incentivised to care about the state of the local economy because their salaries are largely pegged to the redistributed value gains of the most productive sectors of our economy, and usually based in our big cities.

State employees in their luxury cars can drive through rubbish-strewn small towns and second-tier cities where public services are either intermittent or have just about completely stalled, without ever worrying that their incomes will be fundamentally affected like everyone else’s.

Water delivered to their residences

In my own hometown of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, many state employees simply install generators, and have water delivered to their homes, when public services don’t work. It is surprising to me that the idea of senior municipal employees’ salaries being connected to performance indicators within their municipalities has not become more of a political discussion point, and that having clean audits is part of that. It seems unlikely the ruling party would make that an issue – but surely opposition parties could, and in this way help South Africans who are stuck in these miserable places to have at least a fighting chance of ensuring that municipal managers are incentivised to do their jobs.

Why can’t senior municipal salaries be layered and tied to performance indicators in a way that replicates the market pressures that face senior management in the private sector?

According to the Safety and Violence Initiative (established by the University of Cape Town in 2011), while looting cannot be explained by any single factor, the uncomfortable reality is that a key driver of looting is that it is often perceived by looters to be socially acceptable and it is often encouraged and endorsed within social and community networks where it happens.

‘Permissible and justifiable’

Reflecting on the recent scenes of looting and arson in the country, Guy Lamb, a criminologist and lecturer at Stellenbosch University and part of the Safety and Violence Initiative, recently wrote in The Conversation: ‘However, as underscored in our report, looting does not spontaneously emerge. It usually comes about due to instigation by influential individuals or groups who actively articulate that looting against specific targets is permissible and justifiable.’

In South Africa, just as in George RR Martin’s novelistic setting, the elite, disconnected from reality, the economy, and moral and social norms, have harnessed the desperation and some of the moral nihilism they have bred and which has seeped into the poorest communities to fight their own Game of Thrones. Yes, there were many elements to it, but the overarching reality of the ugly scenes is of a society in which a parasitic, elite political apparatus, morally nihilistic to the core and profoundly disconnected from any semblance of reality, set the spark amid the desperation and moral nihilism they fostered in the small folk, who in turn set about destroying the very economy which could liberate them if only it was freed from the very clutches of that parasitic elite.

Martin’s masterly novel is not as enchanting when you have to live it.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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