How to avoid Pharaohs

Jack Bloom MPL

Caucus Leader

I recently visited the famous pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

The largest one was built around 2500 BCE by Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu. It’s a stupendous structure, with more than two million precisely laid heavy stones.

My guide said that it took 100 000 workers 20 years to build, and 50 000 of them died during the construction. He joked that the smaller pyramids were built by kinder pharaohs who didn’t want so many to die. His figures are exaggerations fed to tourists, but many must have died from accidents.

Archaeologists estimate that between 10 000 and 30 000 workers built the Khufu pyramid, most of whom were not slaves. Since Pharaoh was revered as a god, they were probably quite willing participants. They were mostly peasants who were free to work in the season when the Nile flooded their fields.

They worked for a few months at a time, joining about 5000 permanent skilled workers who were paid a salary. Every Pharoah built either a personal burial pyramid or an elaborate tomb. Virtually all have been robbed.

They also built various other vast monuments to their glory, including statues. Percy Bysshe Shelley describes the futility of it all in a famous poem inspired by a colossal wrecked statue of Ramesses II.

He writes of an inscription: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings, Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Throughout history rulers have built edifices to match their outsize arrogance and ego. If the people were not sufficiently overawed by their god-like status, they had the brute force to subdue them.

In the modern era, both fascist and communist dictators embarked on monumental projects at the peoples’ expense.

Giant statues of communist titans like Stalin and Lenin have now been toppled, some stored in parks where visitors can meditate on their folly. Despite their egalitarian propaganda, communist rulers ensured their own comfort, living in luxury mansions and holiday homes.

It is very much more difficult to get away with this sort of thing in a democracy. Hence the outrage at more than R200 million of public money spent on President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead.

Contrast this with Uruguayan President José Mujica, who gives away most of his salary, lives in a small, one-bedroom flat and drives an old Volkswagen Beetle.

Well-paid political leaders don’t have to live in modest circumstances, but should not abuse the public purse for their own comforts.

Egypt today is under military rule, having tasted people power that toppled a corrupt autocratic regime.

We are lucky that politicians in our country are kept in check by institutions like the Public Protector and the Auditor-General. The ultimate accountability is through elections, where voters can throw out modern-day pharaohs by a simple cross on a ballot paper.