On a recent trip to Pretoria I visited the modest Irene home of former Prime Minister Jan Smuts, just to get some perspective on President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla amandla. And maybe even on the R42-million estate left by Nelson Mandela (that is, after he had already dished out a similar fortune to his prospective heirs in his lifetime).
The house in which Smuts and his wife Issie lived – in a time when his country was at war and he faced many violent enemies at home – is an army surplus First World War officers’ mess made of wood and corrugated iron. He bought it and had it re-erected at the foot of a koppie at the end of a gravel farm road. No surrounding walls, police station or swimming pool. No highway.
I took these pictures of the house and of the bed on the veranda where he slept in summer. Issie’s bedroom – a converted passage – is just as poignantly simple, with a devotional cross, a few photographs of their children and a small portable radio hanging from a nail above her narrow iron bed.
They received royalty there with dignity.
It is as well to remember that Smuts and his wife were a remarkable exception in the world of power and politics, whatever the place, race or era.
In my early career I investigated and reported on the greed and corruption of many leading politicians, none of whom achieved anything like the scale of wealth and extravagant living we have had to witness in recent years.
Consider Dr Nico Diederichs, who as a back bencher argued for the nationalisation of mines and banks, but was converted by the Chamber of Mines to become Minister of Finance and ended up State President. A congenial, well- educated gentleman, he was on the take from banks, mining houses, foreign financiers and capital goods suppliers to the state. Much of it came in the form of interest-free loans, “with no repayment date”. Like so many other political leaders, he was Mr Big Spender – and had a delinquent son who had scrapes with the law and got involved in ill-advised schemes that drained his father’s millions faster than even “Mr Gold”, as he was nicknamed, could solicit them.
When State President Diederichs died in office in 1978, his estate was found to be bankrupt. He had been effectively bankrupt for years, but all those around him had found it to be in their interests to help hide this fact in order to keep him in office. His creditors got 22 cents in the rand; his heirs got not a cent.
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