27 Nov 2012 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
In troubled South Africa, ‘My Eyes Glaze Over’ is a useful lens through which to view events, writes Tony Leon
WILLIAM Safire, the late great columnist of The New York Times, was fond of neologisms. One of his favourites was MEGO, short for "My Eyes Glaze Over". In today’s troubled South Africa, MEGO is a useful lens through which to view current events, referring to the point at which yet another "revelation", "exposé" or "crisis" induces a sense of yawning fatigue.
In classical terms, it’s similar to the last act of Macbeth, where there are so many corpses and such a trail of bloody destruction, wreaked by the weak king and his ambitious lady, that you lose count of those dead and those still standing.
South Africa is spoilt for choice when it comes to MEGO moments. Last week, Congress of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi coined an acronym of his own: the ruling African National Congress (ANC), he said, stands for the "absolutely no consequences" party. Vavi is referring to the daily revelations of corruption and misgovernance dutifully reported and which generally produce few results in terms of prosecution and interdiction.
The sheer scale and torrent of these disclosures — crooked leases in the Northern Cape, dodgy tenders for toll roads and abuse of private jets for ministerial flights — are just the appetisers from a vast menu. Understandably, MEGO becomes the default option.
In 1995, a year or so after the democratic Parliament was first elected, a single departmental scandal — the misuse of European Union donor funds (by the minister of health) intended to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, but splurged instead on a play, Sarafina 2 — mesmerised the legislature and the press. Those were, in retrospect, halcyon days.
Seventeen years later, I noted a report of my old parliamentary colleague, Willie Hofmeyr, who then headed the anticorruption Special Investigation Unit. He told Parliament he believed that 20% of the entire state procurement budget, equivalent to a staggering R30bn, "was being lost to corruption, mismanagement and incompetence". For his troubles, Hofmeyr was sidelined, but not the problems he highlighted.
The biggest MEGO moment is the arms deal scandal. As the commission of inquiry appointed to uncover the welter of malfeasance at its root continues at its leisurely pace, it is worth recalling that to date only Schabir Shaik was briefly imprisoned for his role in it. South Africa’s battered legal system appears today, especially after the defanging of the Scorpions and the pliancy of the National Prosecuting Authority, to provide a modern update for Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century observation that "laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through".
The endless twists and turns in the road to the Mangaung national conference of the ANC will, before the entire country suffers from MEGO, happily end within a month. But before the body count reaches Macbeth-like levels, one fact stands out. I recall then parliamentary speaker Frene Ginwala memorably explaining why loyal struggle cadres made bad parliamentary democrats. "The liberation movements have brought military style authoritarianism, combined with a tendency to close ranks defensively when attacked or criticised." At the time, I had to deal with the fact that, in contrast, nothing divided the opposition so much as questions of its unity.
Now, the reverse seems to be the case. A united opposition approached the courts to settle the issue of a no-confidence motion, while, in Potchefstroom, a divided ANC allowed a Democratic Alliance mayor to get elected. The "victories" on these fronts point to a new direction. Even the most jaded tourist will not suffer from MEGO when viewing the Taj Mahal in northern India. When I entered its precincts in Agra a few years ago, I was mesmerised by the shimmering white mausoleum, which Mogul emperor Shah Jehan built to the memory of his third wife.
But I lacked the insight of ace economist John Kay. Last week in the Financial Times, he pointed out that Shah Jehan may have appropriated as much as 40% of gross domestic product to support a lifestyle of "exceptional ostentation and self-indulgence". His overthrow by his equally rapacious son did not stop the rot: "The Mogul empire was in irretrievable decline."
As our local moguls eye the "development state" as the road to riches, they might pause to consider the consequences of "rent-seeking" or the accumulation of wealth by appropriation after it has been created by other people. Kay brilliantly captures the difference between the two roads to enrichment: "Whenever the balance shifts too far in favour of appropriation over creation, we see entrepreneurial talent diverted to unproductive activity … until others become envious of the proceeds of appropriation, and the resentment of the oppressed undermines the legitimacy of the regime."
No MEGO moment here, I trust.
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