I’ve been thinking this week of the chutzpah of very wealthy alleged crooks and the advantages they either inherently have or which they claim, by virtue of their enormous affluence.
This is not a new thought at all. But it was prompted this time by Ferial Haffajee’s question, wondering why Markus Jooste was being given a platform in Parliament, instead of facing tough cross-examination in court on criminal charges.
Mealy mouthed Jooste appeared in Parliament almost exactly 9 months – quite a gestation period, isn’t it – after his dishonourable exit from Steinhoff. And despite the anger and intent of MPs to hold him accountable, Jooste spun the bullshit which he had patently spent hours and likely a few million rand rehearsing with his lawyers.
In doing so he had the cover of the Cape High Court, which had issued an order that Parliament could only question Jooste on “institutional flaws and challenges” which exist in the financial regulatory framework in South Africa. Jooste had gone to court after Parliament’s summons for him to come and explain, accusing the legislators initial attempt to question him as “unfair, oppressive and an abuse”.
If you didn’t quite get that irony, imagine someone is accused of the widespread rape of pupils in a school and he is called to give evidence on the failures of the security system which was set up to protect the children.
But then there was also the gall of the Gupta crooks – you must hand it to these buggers, they are fearless in seizing an advantage even when none is available – trying to dictate via their lawyers how they might engage with the State Capture Commission.
There was even the relatively minor (in the scheme of things) attitude presented by former Communications Minister Faith Muthambi towards acting director-general Phumla Williams. Apart from her intention to “steal at all costs”, Muthambi wanted Williams to address her by the formal designation used in Parliament of “Honourable”.
And so it continues ad nauseum – these examples are not even the most egregious abuse by individuals of their privileged state; they’re simply recent moments of status-fuelled hubris.
Jooste, the Guptas, Muthambi, represent the attitudes of the powerful in every sphere of our society, over and over again – ‘we deserve and expect to be treated and even addressed differently and better than others, despite what the Constitution and laws might permit’ they say.
Often that power is not premised on or rooted in wealth – the power comes first, such as political authority or similar privileged position, with the financial wealth flowing as a consequence of the influence such position provides.
Sociologist Brooke Harrington has written about how the lives of the world’s billionaire class, indeed, are so different from the rest of us, that laws within countries, even national borders, do not matter and might as well not exist.
An example of this is US President Donald Trump, who believed himself to be smart for being able to avoid paying taxes, as all residents of any country are meant to do.
Trump should just have shut up but, in typical fashion, he was simply caught on the wrong side of his own arrogance. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any member of our political and business elite who does not believe it’s okay to find and use every available loophole to avoid paying their full quota of taxes, including hiding their income in international tax havens, although they’ll not boast about it in public.
Harrington, who trained to become a wealth manager and then used the access into that sphere to write about the lives of the really wealthy, has related how the ultra rich often can comfortably pass through international points of entry undetected by nosy and nasty customs and immigration officials. They do this by using fixed-based operators (FBOs) that offer a wide range of private services at airports including passport controls. But sometimes the wealthy do not even pass through an FBO, simply arriving and departing as if there are no constraints on them.
The ongoing dispute between the department of home affairs and the Oppenheimer family-owned Fireblade Aviation Services points to a South African example of this privilege that extremely rich individuals and corporate entities enjoy.
Fireblade operates an FBO aviation service at its private international air terminal at OR Tambo Airport which includes ostensibly managing immigration and custom services to client travellers. That terminal came under the spotlight when another oligarch family, the Guptas, tried to capture what the Oppenheimers thought was their domain.
The merits of the services offered through the terminal have not been taken under the microscope, although Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba has now claimed that private airports are not allowed under the Immigration Act.
The privileged will always argue that their hectic business schedules – aligned to the alleged benefits their work brings to society broadly – warrant these special perks.
It is time that more attention is given to the ways in which the political and business elites seek and secure privileged places in and passages through our society.