There's a clear line between greed and arrogance

ON MONDAY I accidently watched part of the press conference of Collins Letsoalo, the former acting CEO of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa). He had called the press conference to “clarify” certain matters related to his excessive salary which, it is claimed, he had paid to himself without board approval and knowledge.

I switched off the TV after a few minutes because I could no longer bear to watch the arrogance on display. If I closed my eyes, it was almost like listening to Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the suspended SABC senior executive who effectively ran the corporation. Motsoeneng, of course, also has issues related to excessive salary increases for which he still has not accounted.

Let me explain. I have nothing against arrogance. I often feel that people who are overly confident can sometimes be misconstrued to be arrogant. But arrogance needs to be backed up by some intelligence and professionalism. In short, if you know what you are talking about or what you are doing, more than others, then you probably deserve to be a little bit arrogant.

But what was clear from Letsoalo’s press conference was that he was effectively trying to spin himself out of a situation where it appeared that he was caught with his hands in the cookie jar. Letsoalo, who reportedly earned R1,3m at the Department of Transport, where he was chief financial officer, demanded the same R5,9m package that was paid to the previous CEO of Prasa, Lucky Montana. This, apparently, was not in the terms of his secondment to Prasa.

Letsoala was, of course, fired by the board within hours of the press conference, and sent back to the Department of Transport, but he resisted, saying that the board did not have the power to fire him. What then is the power of the board, if they are not able to hire and fire CEOs or acting CEOs?

There seems to be a perception among some people that, when they have done something wrong, they should not take responsibility and find someone else to blame. Or they will make certain silly pronouncements in the knowledge that, no matter how provocative their statements, nothing will happen to them.

Surely these people must take their cue from someone higher up and they must feel that they have some protection? Or maybe they are just following the cue of people more prominent than them who have committed similar indiscretions without facing any repercussions?

One can think here of people such as ANC Youth League president Collen Maine, who makes one reckless statement after the other without any real punishment by his mother body, the ANC. In his latest dangerous statement, made in front of President Jacob Zuma last week, he called Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan an “impimpi” and reminded his supporters about what happened to impimpis in the apartheid days. Impimpis or apartheid spies, used to be necklaced, with a tyre thrown around the neck and set on fire.

It is not that the ANC has not acted against reckless people in the past. Former youth league leader Julius Malema found himself out in the cold after actions deemed to be inappropriate by the ANC leadership. Of course, he managed to bounce back outside the ANC and has now become one of the biggest thorns in the side of Africa’s oldest liberation movement.

The problem with arrogance is that those guilty of this practice make as if everything is about them and not about the people they are meant to serve.

In Letsoalo’s case, for instance, he was meant to stabilise Prasa after Montana’s departure and he needed to oversee a major overhaul of the country’s rail transport system. He was brought in after Montana stepped down in 2015 after the Public Protector report outlining corruption and mismanagement at the parastatal.

The real victims here are the taxpayers who are meant to pay these exorbitant salaries while they themselves are struggling to make ends meet. The other victims are the people who depend on government and its agencies to deliver services that will make like easier, whether this is transport, broadcasting services or social grants, which is another area where arrogance is bedevilling service delivery.

Letsoalo, Motsoeneng and others need to ask themselves what is means to serve the public, which is what public servants are supposed to do. Public servants are not meant to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor people they are supposed to serve. They are not supposed to treat the money collected from hardworking taxpayers as a private piggy bank that they can just raid whenever they feel like it.

Whether Letsoalo was correct about his pay demands is not the issue. What is the issue is that public servants can be paid such huge amounts in a country with so much poverty and inequality. Prasa is not a private entity. It is effectively part of government infrastructure and there should not be such huge difference in salaries between them and what other public servants earn.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 4 March 2017.)