Kunene can eat his sushi as he likes

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

It is easy to ridicule Kenny Kunene, given how well he fits a certain nouveau-riche stereotype. However, public reaction to his extravagant spending has verged on the hysterical, aided by the condemnation of his “sushi parties” by Vavi and Mantashe, as well as certain columnists in our press. But I’m not at all convinced that he has done anything wrong – or that he is not simply being used as a scapegoat to distract voters from the everyday extravagances of some of our elected officials.

There is a crucial difference between Kunene and Malema, whom I’ve criticised in the past for his conspicuous consumption. Malema presents himself as working class, and serves as an official representative of the ANC Youth League, meaning that his actions can (rightly) be interpreted as either consistent or not with goals such as social development.

It’s unclear why Kunene has any more of an obligation to care about the needs of the poor than any other wealthy person does. I dispute neither that a charitable disposition is laudable, nor that South Africa could benefit from both philanthropy, as well as from having examples of fiscal restraint to countermand the lust for bling that seems to have taken hold in many younger South Africans.

We could all give more to charity, though. If we were to find Peter Singer’s arguments in “The life you can save” persuasive (and of course, follow them through with action), we could perhaps even end world poverty. But your (and my) relatively trivial wastefulness usually escapes scrutiny, given that it is trivial by comparison to that of Kunene.

The sound bites and headlines he provides for are mere conveniences, though. Sure, he might be able to build a school instead of throwing a couple of parties, but so could a few thousand more ordinary South Africans, if they chose to do so. More importantly, so could government, perhaps instead of purchasing and maintaining a Boeing 737-7ED VIP business jet for President Zuma (one of four jets at the President’s disposal).

Or, ex-Communications Minister (now Zuma’s representative in Parliament) Siphiwe Nyanda could have bought cars that cost less than the R1.1-million that his two new BMWs cost. Houses in the parliamentary villages of Acacia Park, Laboria Park and Pelican Park could perhaps be occupied, instead of standing vacant while taxpayers fork out for alternative accommodation for MPs.

The point is that just about everybody wastes at least some money. But only some of us are (or, should be) accountable for doing so. And it is an easy equation that serves as our foundation for arguments against government waste: the more money they waste, the more we are taxed to pay for thing that need to be built, or social grants that are awarded.

Kenny Kunene, on the other hand, costs us nothing. He is spending his own money, and whether we think him lacking in taste, or lacking in sympathy for the poor, simply puts him at an extreme of a continuum on which we all find ourselves – able to do more if we choose to, but mostly satisfied either that we’re doing enough, or that it’s not our job to do anything besides look after ourselves.

Picking on him for having extravagant parties can therefore seem sanctimonious, and somewhat hypocritical – especially when the criticism comes from government, who could easily be accused of wasting more money than Kunene does. He does not promise to look after the poor, as Cosatu does, although he has subsequently been guilted into uttering what turned out to be falsehoods around his mining company’s failure to assist poor communities surrounding Central Rand Gold.

How private individuals spend their money is a private affair, regardless of what we think they should be spending their money on. Large expenditure on public goods or charities by individuals may well be morally good, yes, but these actions are supererogatory ones – in other words, they are above and beyond the call of duty. None of us have a moral obligation to give to charity, but we are more plausibly obliged to fulfil our promises, and to do our jobs. It’s the government’s job to look after the poor, and Kunene’s to increase the profitability of his companies within the confines of the law.

It is difficult, then, to see public condemnation of Kunene as anything other than jealousy or sanctimonious moralising. Condemnation from Cosatu and government, on the other hand, can serve as a simple act of moral grandstanding, as well as a distraction from the everyday splurging and corruption. It’s certainly a statement of purpose and commitment to the poor to condemn Kunene, but such a statement is verified by avoiding such extravagances yourself, rather than by telling us “look over there – Kunene is throwing another wasteful party!”.

And why is it that Kunene has these obligations to the poor, while Nicky van der Walt and Lee-Ann Liebenberg can (allegedly) spend R 60 000 on champagne without being accused of similar callousness? Is it his blackness that incurs special obligations on him? If so, the argument is not a moral one, but one that is essentially racist, in that a black man is not equally free (at least, according to the liberation movement that governs the country) to choose how to spend his money as a white man is.

One detail you might think crucial to this story has of course been left out. I refer, of course, to the eating of sushi off “plates” consisting of scantily-clad female models, described by Mantashe as an “anti-ANC and anti-revolutionary” practice.

I don’t speak ANC-code well enough to respond to that, except to say that while Mantashe’s wagging finger could justifiably be pointed at Malema for attending the party in question, I have yet to read of Kunene’s aspirations to being either a revolutionary or an ANC representative. It may well be both anti-ANC and anti-revolutionary for me to cast my vote for an opposition party, but I don’t much care, and perhaps Kunene has no motivation to care either – unless, of course, he’s winning government tenders at the rate Malema once was.

And then, of course, there are the arguments some are describing as “feminist”, involving claims that women are degraded by this practice. Leaving aside the slippery-slope problems presented by such arguments (for example, the question of where such degradation starts and ends: does it include advertisements? Porn? Why or why not?), two missing pieces of information make the claims of degradation unsustainable.

First, none of the reporting around the sushi parties has revealed anything about the extent to which these models wanted to serve as plates for Kenny’s sushi, nor how long the waiting list of prospective plates might have been. If they wanted this job, the burden of proof for an argument of degradation or exploitation rests on the moralisers, not the models.

Second, and related, is the question of how much the models were paid for the evening’s work. Until we know this – and possibly, the extent to which this wage allowed them to avoid work they found more disagreeable – we can really have no idea whether it was them, or Kenny Kunene, who emerged as the loser in this transaction.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.