To declare a gift is not enough

We can only empathise with the 40 Vukuzakhe contractors who decided to buy the luxury S500 Mercedes Benz for Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele.

We can only empathise with the 40 Vukuzakhe contractors who decided to buy the luxury S500 Mercedes Benz for Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele.

We should also accept the explanation by Phatheni Zondi - one of the contractors - that this was an honest gift based on the African value of ubuntu.

"As black people, giving a gift is a usual thing to do for someone who helped you," a tearful Zondi told Sowetan upon hearing that Ndebele had decided to return the gift.

The gesture by the Vukuzakhe contractors has raised some key questions about the relationship between public office holders and the public in general - including business.

The explanation by the contractors is that Ndebele - while still KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Transport - has changed their lives through the Vukuzakhe programme. As small contractors they were groomed and eventually empowered enough to handle multi-million rand government contracts in road construction.

The reality of the situation in coming up with the programme is that Ndebele was implementing one of the commitments made by his government - namely - small business development. He was therefore not acting in his individual capacity but as a representative of the government.

Essentially he was just doing his job which he was being adequately rewarded for as an MEC. The question then arising is: Should the public reward politicians for doing their job?

More so taking into consideration that they were put in that position because of the commitment to serve the public.

Linked to this question is the issue of moral probity. Should, for example, politicians accept gifts from business?

This question arises from the position of power that they hold and how those who bear the gift could abuse that. The gift from Vukuzakhe may as well have been an honest gift but that does not preclude the possibility that the recipient could use his position of power to favour the bearer of such a gift when it comes to opportunities arising in his sphere of operation.

There is also the possibility that other gifts of this nature could be some form of inducement for the politician to act in favour of the benefactor. Whether he will relent is a moot point. The issue is: we should not create a situation where there is a possibility of the politician relenting to the inducement.

To argue that because, for example, Ndebele as a cabinet minister does not sit on the tender committee where he can influence decisions to favour the bearer of his gift is actually disingenuous.

Those who present this argument are either mischievous and do not actually understand the insidiousness of power.

This issue about how politicians should deal with gifts is not peculiar to South Africa.

South Africa has a code of ethics for the executive which prescribes that a member who has received, in the course of his or her duties, a gift with a value of more than R1000 must get permission from the president to retain or accept the present.

In the same way, in terms of the conflict of interest rules in Canada, an ordinary MP must report any gifts with a value of more than R4000 on a public registry maintained at the office of the federal ethics commissioner. Cabinet ministers and top bureaucrats must register gifts with a value of more than R1700.

Just like in South Africa the situation in Canada is being questioned.

Individuals like political science professor Robert MacDemid, an ethics expert at Toronto York University, believes that Canadian politicians should not accept gifts from other governments or private sector.

Presents from other leaders, he argues, should be turned over to the national archives.

"I do not think it is appropriate to keep gifts since the person in that office is a representative of the people," MacDemid said, adding that official presents "aren't personal birthday gifts. It is really a gift to the people of Canada".

South Africa should learn from these debates and accept that having a rule that only calls for a declaration is not enough.

We should consider the proposition by MacDemid - which effectively addresses the issue of exchange of state gifts - often raised by government officials when justifying the acceptance of such gifts.

On the other hand, we could go the full monty and adopt the no-gift rule as proposed by Israeli former supreme court president Aharon Barak.

"The acceptance of a benefit, even if its financial value is small, arouses suspicion and slander that damages the public's faith in the integrity of (civil) services," argues Barak.

We cannot afford to have the public questioning the integrity of those who govern the country.