The parable of the plumber

David Bullard says maybe, just maybe, we should first look for basic competency in our politicians


Around the middle of last year I noticed a strange smell in our bedroom. It wasn’t too disgusting to begin with. It seemed to be coming from the bathroom and if I closed the bathroom door the smell wasn’t as bad. Initially I thought something had got into the roof and died. But I couldn’t hear the tell-tale scuttling of rat’s feet at night or the restless nocturnal movement of starlings so I ruled that out.

The smell came and went and at one point I thought the problem had sorted itself out but then, after some heavy rain, it came back with a vengeance and I thought it might be a good idea to put some Jeyes fluid down all the plug holes. That didn’t work and the smell got steadily worse so I called a plumber.

I wasn’t too bothered about how the plumber dressed, what his opinions on Gaza were or whether he had charisma; all I wanted was someone who knew what he was doing and could sort the problem out. The plumber arrived, sent a camera down the drain to check for a blockage, found the trouble and arranged for another team to dig up the garden and repair a poorly laid pipe and a few grand later we were stink free and very happy. 

What’s the point of this parable of the plumber you may be wondering? 

Well, it came to mind as I spent much of last week thinking about the coming election (300+ parties for heaven’s sake) and reading comments from various social media contributors as to why they can’t vote DA any more. Among the reasons given are that John Steenhuisen has no charisma, that the party is Zionist, that they have no plans for transformation and that they want to bring back apartheid. Many of these comments came from white South Africans living the good life in Cape Town. The other popular reason given to ditch the DA is their lack of support for Palestine. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Now if you are prepared to jeopardise your own country’s future because a political party apparently has opinions on foreign policy that don’t agree with your own then you must be some kind of nutter; particularly if your own antisemitic opinions are as ill informed as many of them appear to be.

So let’s assume the DA is punished for its alleged ‘Zionism’ in the Western Cape and the city and the province sink to the level of KZN and Gauteng under a new administration because that is what is likely to happen. Will grateful Palestinians be writing thank you notes to Capetonians thanking them for their sacrifice? I think not.

Of course, the whole problem with democracy in South Africa is that it has, thanks to the ANC, been a complete disaster as a political system which is probably why so many people seem so confused and why we have so many political parties keen to get their snouts in the feeding trough.

When the ANC took over the entire South African economy in 1994 they were ill equipped to do so given that they had transitioned from a liberation movement to a governing party. However, to their great credit they brought in respected business figures like Derek Keys and Chris Liebenberg to help guide their steps. The fact that Keys was a white man and head of a major mining company would be complete anathema today but back then it was a very smart move.

It not only helped people like Trevor Manuel step smoothly into the role of Finance Minister in 1996 but, more importantly, it boosted international business confidence in South Africa. This was particularly important because prior to the election influential publications such as The Economist had presented various disaster scenarios for the country including a violent right wing uprising which would have isolated South Africa.

Fortunately, most of the 1994 predictions for the election outcome were wildly wrong but it should be remembered that some nervous key business people took their entire families overseas for the duration of the election and only returned when they saw it was safe. Many of those who couldn’t escape stocked up on baked beans and dried pasta. Chez Bullard went the liquid asset route and stocked up on whisky.

Trevor Manuel’s spell as Finance Minister under Thabo Mbeki was a huge success for South Africa with government spending under control and the country recording its first ever budget surplus in 2007 amidst strong economic growth and growing international investment. Things we can only dream about under the current gangster administration.

In a wide ranging interview with the Daily Maverick political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki was pretty forthright with his view on what is happening now.

Mbeki believes that the ANC has crippled the country’s economic advancement by creating a black middle class that is dependent on the state and public service perks for its sustenance or prosperity.

“The ANC is a party that benefits the black middle class. It has done this by offering early severance packages to white civil servants at the dawn of democracy and replacing these whites with blacks.

“This black middle class don’t produce anything, yet they pay themselves huge salaries and other perks. The South African public servants are the highest paid in the world as a percentage of GDP.

“In South Africa, as of November 2023, there were 55,000 civil servants who were earning more than R1-million. This is the highest in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries. These are people who have a parasitic relationship with the state, wherein they get huge salaries for doing absolutely nothing.

So what is the alternative to another five years of corrupt ANC government and smug, over remunerated politicians who tell us that loadshedding ‘isn’t the end of the world’. (Neither I suppose are kids falling into pit latrines at schools, failed hospitals, high youth unemployment and collapsing municipal infrastructure if viewed from the privileged position of an ANC cadre with guaranteed job security and a very handsome pension plan.)

The problem with democracy is that there is nothing to stop the electorate from sticking (or continuing to stick) a gardening fork in its foot should it become so minded. This is currently true of the US where the only two presidential candidates out of a population of 320 million seem to be a guy with dementia and another guy who wallows in conspiracy theories. The UK isn’t in much better shape with the possibility that a man who thinks one woman in every thousand has a penis could soon become prime minister. So, we are not alone.

One solution would be for the voters to evaluate parties as a company one might wish to invest in. Do they have strong leadership? Do they have good ideas? Have they got a track record or are they just a bunch of chancers who will continue with the economic miracle of the ANC as described by Moeletsi Mbeki?

It also wouldn’t be a bad idea if potential politicians had to pass a basic competency test before they are allowed to stand for office. If you want to run a business you need a trading licence and if you want to drive a bus you need to demonstrate some sort of competency before you’re allowed to ferry schoolkids around. Surely the same should apply to politicians before they became a wrecking ball with a five year mandate?

I shall leave the final word to the philosopher Plato whose views almost 2500 years ago seem to hold true today.

Democracy does not contain any force which will check the constant tendency to put more and more on the public payroll. The state is like a hive of bees in which the drones display, multiply and starve the workers so the idlers will consume the food and the workers will perish.

Let’s hope artificial intelligence will one day replace genuine idiocy.