Minister ignorant over 'astronomical' fees
Cape Town - When Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson booked into a Sandton luxury guesthouse for 28 days, she had not "wildly imagined" it would cost taxpayers R420 000.
In an attempt to "wholly lay to rest" a storm over the size of the bill, she said on Friday she had not known at the time how much it was.
"After my parliamentary reply caused a storm, especially about the cost of around R420 000 spent on the controversial guesthouse - hitherto unbeknown to me - I inquired from my officials what had led them to spend such an obscene amount of money on an ordinary guesthouse," the minister told reporters in Cape Town.
The officials explained that the guesthouse had been block-booked by a foreign company for the duration of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, and they had to pay an "inflated amount" to secure it.
Ministers do not approve accommodation
"I did not know the department was paying the guest house an astronomical amount of money, especially after I had asked that I be booked in a guesthouse to avoid the high cost of a hotel," the minister said.
"Needless to say, ministers do not approve accommodation."
Joemat-Pettersson explained that her foot had been in a plaster cast at the time, and she was dependent on her female bodyguard because she could only move around on either crutches or in a wheelchair.
"There was no way in which I would have wildly imagined that the guesthouse was so expensive. I thought that by moving into a guesthouse, it would be more [sic] cheaper than a hotel," she said.
"My foot was in a cast, and at one stage I couldn't move. I was in a wheelchair. My protector had to help me in and out of the bath, and some of the other things.
Not a lesbian
"And please, I do not have a husband, so my protector had to help me. And I'm also not a lesbian," she said, laughing loudly.
Asked who the official was who took the decision to book her and her bodyguards into the R15 000 a night establishment, Joemat-Pettersson referred the question to her director general, Langa Zita.
"We have a sense of who the official is, but... the matter is under investigation," he responded.
Joemat-Pettersson, who assumed office in May 2009, said an investigation was also underway to establish how incorrect information on her hotel stays was included in a written reply to parliamentary question, tabled at Parliament last month.
She signed off the reply.
"I signed off on the parliamentary reply after reading it. A human error occurred for which I apologise and from which we have all learnt."
Asked if she thought there might have been a deliberate attempt by staff to "paint her in a bad light", Joemat-Pettersson said she did not blame her officials.
"If they acted maliciously, I believe that their malicious intent will be addressed. I have requested the director general to take the necessary disciplinary processes."
She said her dignity had been impaired and her character impugned by "opportunists" who sought to score "cheap political points" about her hotel accommodation.
She had been cast as an extravagant minister who "willy-nilly splurges on luxury hotels using taxpayers' money".
Public works responsible
Joemat-Pettersson said her accommodation was the responsibility of the department of public works.
"The department of public works is entirely responsible for any minister's accommodation. They find you a house, furnish it and provide [all other household services]."
In what she called a "brief background about my accommodation", Joemat-Pettersson gave details of a two-year-long battle she had waged with public works to either provide her with a house or repair the one she was living in.
On one occasion, she had to sleep in her car with her two minor children while officials from her department frantically sought accommodation for them.
"When they eventually found a room for me, my children, the nanny and I had to share a bed in one room," she said.
The Democratic Alliance said Joemat-Pettersson's effort to set the record straight had produced more questions than answers. "Instead of coming clean... about her vast hotel bill and numerous anomalies such as why two hotels were often booked for the minister at one time, [she] has simply sought to shift the blame to staff in her department and public works," DA MP Lourie Bosman said in a statement.
The only person who could now set the record straight on the minister's hotel spending was the public protector, he said.
The DA has called on Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to investigate the matter.