Besides the fact that it is probably next to impossible for someone who is dirt poor to suddenly get elected state president, this debate is more about whether the person will find that he or she actually needs the salary.
Sure, the salary is not bad, although even I have been paid more for doing far less in the private sector. And if in fact the president does need the salary, is this a good or bad thing?
Perhaps the idea is that a man with money will be less likely to be bribed once in office and perhaps be less eager to plunder public coffers. The problem, however, with this kind of thinking is that a rich man may already be owned by big business, and without the need for business to even have to make the effort to corrupt him. How are we to know?
There are endless examples in our history of rich men coming to power (rich men coming to power are in fact the norm) and then abusing that power to become even richer, and make their friends even richer.
In the USw America, for example, government decisions overwhelmingly favour big business and not everyday, average Americans.
Although Harvard-educated Barack Obama was not a poor man, half of his 2008 campaign contributions came from everyday, average and middle-class Americans who pledged small and big amounts to see him bring about change.
President Obama has been noticeably trying to make a difference to the lives of these people. He wasn’t born rich, wasn’t always rich, and without his salary, I doubt he would carry on doing the job.
And why should he?
Donald Trump has tried to run for US president from time to time. Despite his popularity, he always fails. He just doesn’t have the muscle born from years of political struggle.
Globally, heads of states are famously remunerated quite poorly. Tony Blair’s wife earned more than he did. She was a barrister; he was the prime minister.
He needed that money. He was a professional politician and had worked his way up the ranks. Getting the salary and the pension, albeit a humble one, was his reward for a lifetime of service to the state.
In 1997, India elected KR Narayanan, who came from India’s lowest caste, the Untouchables. This undid centuries of discrimination, but social change is still needed. South Africa is the same. Only a man who understands what poverty is is able to overcome the challenge it poses since he knows – intimately – his enemy.
Statistically, to stand a chance of being rich, you have to come from a rich family. Or you have to be an exceptional human being whose gift lies in making money. Being able to make money does not guarantee that you will be a good human being, and Ferial’s qualification that doing it for “the love” is no reassurance either.
A president who leads “out of love” may be very reluctant to step down, because he “loves” what he does too much. In any case, love is an irrational thing, and who wants someone irrational in charge?
The best presidents are often those who are reluctant to take the job because they know it’s one hell of a tough job, and it’s a largely thankless task. To be a crummy dictator – well, now, that’s easy. I would love to be a dictator. I would hate to be a long-suffering servant of the people.
And that is why a president should need the salary we pay him. He is a public servant.
He works for us. If he doesn’t do a good job, he might in any case go on a fat pension for the rest of his days, but if we so demand, we could impeach him. A president who doesn’t need or care for the salary we pay him may just not need or care for us.
The bottom line is that a rich person could be as great or even a greater president than one from poor, humble stock. But to simply presuppose being rich as a matter of principle is something that smacks of class discrimination. And class discrimination leads to civil war.
» McKenzie is a millionaire businessman and former bank robber