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Hypocrisy in government messaging

On World Hunger Day last week, we were exposed to a few sobering facts about hunger in the world and in South Africa in particular. According to the Foodbank, approximately 11 million South Africans are vulnerable to food insecurity.

As Professor Ruth Hall explained so eloquently in a radio interview on the subject, South Africa typically suffers from the usual dualism, namely a so-called 'first world' problem of waste and excess. Far too many of us have too much food and allow for waste while others go hungry.

For children who go to school there is some hope as they are able to benefit from school-feeding meals. In the Western Cape this scheme runs particularly well, yet in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo specifically we have seen children go hungry as a direct result of corrupt school feeding scheme tenders and meals not being delivered to schools.

The challenges of food security in South Africa are complex and need an appropriate policy response and effective implementation. The question is whether the new minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Senzeni Zokwana, is up to the task. The beleaguered ministry is probably still recovering from the utterly shambolic stint of former minister Tina Joemat-Petterson who was not only the subject of two Public Protector findings against her, but who also seemed to leave a path of policy and implementation destruction in her wake. Quite how she survives is anyone's guess.

But then again, Zokwana has been parachuted into government and into this important portfolio having worn the hats of former chair of the South Africa Communist Party (SACP) and of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). But perhaps that is sufficient to warrant a position in President Jacob Zuma's large Cabinet?

Zokwana's appointment was a bit of a surprise, yet this past weekend a story surfaced that he was allegedly paying his herder from Lesotho R26 a day, which amounts to R800 a month. It seems from reports that this amount was increased to R1,400 a month as at the end of May. Immediately, the SACP 'attack dogs' were blaming the media for printing the story, saying it was displaying a 'political agenda' and trying to 'demonise' Zokwana. Actually, the story is directly in the public interest. If the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) were rightly outraged by the low wages of workers on Western Cape wine farms, why is this story any different? Messages matter and by allegedly paying his herder a pittance Zokwana will find it difficult to speak about worker exploitation with much credibility.

And it is this kind of hypocrisy which fuels societal instability even further. How do we show social solidarity with those who are at the fringes of society other than through a living wage and executive pay-cuts, as a start? Apart from proper policy implementation, something has got to give across our society if we don't wish to see further fragmentation.

So, the SACP can shout all it likes but the messages politicians send are important if we are to take them seriously.

The new Minister of Finance, the able and affable Nhlanhla Nene, has said he will not be taking the luxury car which he is now entitled to as a minister and will be using his deputy minister's Nissan Pathfinder. Nene also appealed to his colleagues to do the same. Nene's stance is to be welcomed but can we really be sure that his Cabinet colleagues will follow suit? Can we be sure the president himself will follow suit? We are a long way off from the Swedish example where ministers travel by train and have no security detail, or where like the Danish Prime minister, our politicians shovel the snow outside their driveways - or the South African equivalent of snow!

Messages matter and none more so than in an unequal and divided society.

Speaking of the Cabinet, Lindiwe Zulu, as Minister of Small Business Development, seems likely to shake things up with her more pragmatic and less ideological approach to matters. Quite how she and Ebrahim Patel at Economic Development will square up remains to be seen, but Zulu is a breath of fresh air in this new Cabinet.

Zuma will have to rally his troops pretty fast. He has a 2016 local government election which looks set to be challenging, specifically in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape. The African National Congress (ANC) therefore cannot afford a government beset with factional battles ahead of the ANC's 2017 elective conference. Whether Zuma too is able to set aside his personal interests and govern in the interests of all the people, remains to be seen. In the meantime, individual ministers have everything to prove as South Africa urgently seeks to deal with inequality and poverty and a social fabric increasingly frayed.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).