Guide for gravy boaters

2011-05-24 00:00

MOST of us can surely well remember those times during childhood when we were caught eating something that we knew we shouldn’t and our immediate defence was to claim that Mum or Dad said we could. Well, that about sums up the contemporary behaviour of many of our highest political office bearers, only in their case it’s not the sweets meant for the guests but public monies and it’s not parents who are the rationalising crutch but the ministerial handbook.

According to the Department of Public Service and Administration, the handbook is “a classified document” only accessible to the public through the use of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). Of course, this is an absolutely outrageous and untenable position given that the handbook is, as its opening line states, a “guideline for benefits and privileges to which members and their families are entitled, in the execution of their duties”.

Since almost every senior politician, including the president himself, has at one point or another over the past several years publicly cited the handbook to justify their expenditure of public monies and at times questionable individual business dealings, there can be no question of privatising its contents. As the public, we all have a right to know what rules and regulations govern the financial behaviour of our public officials and how they spend our public monies so that we can hold them accountable. It’s democracy.

So what have they been hiding from us all these years? Importantly, the handbook’s first chapter clearly sets out what ministers cannot do. They cannot: “use their position or any information entrusted to them, to enrich themselves or improperly benefit any other person; expose themselves to any situation involving the risk of a conflict between their official responsibilities and their financial and/or personal interests; [and] make improper use of any allowance or payment properly made to them”.

The rest of the handbook details all of the “benefits and privileges” to which our senior politicians are entitled. Not surprisingly, they read like a members’ guide to the most exclusive political club in the country. Leaving aside the 40%-plus of our population who have no regular income, unlike those of us in South Africa who actually do have a formal job income and who diligently cough up increasing amounts of it to the tax authorities, the base salaries of our political illuminati are tax-free. They receive what the handbook calls an “inclusive remuneration package” which includes top-up provisions for all tax liabilities. Additionally, the package provides for a housing allowance equivalent to 10% of the base salary, a full medical-aid deal, death benefits, as well as disability and funeral cover.

When it’s all added up, the full salary amount that “club members” receive puts them into the rarefied stratosphere of the top 0,1% of all earners in South Africa. Our president sits at the apex of the golden triangle, pulling in a cool R2,3 million a year. Then come national ministers on R1,8 million a year, provincial premiers on R1,6 million, deputy ministers at R1,5 million and the “poor” provincial MECs who have to make do with R1,4 million.

However, the lavish salaries are only the first course of the meal. While all members are entitled to a free state-owned residence, national ministers can also occupy a second state-owned house (if available in the “other capital”). For this second home, they are only required to pay what the handbook laughably calls, “a monthly market-related rental” which is calculated by taking one percent of their base salary and dividing it by 12. That comes out to around R1 500 per month, an amount that would not even get you a decent one-bedroom flat in Hillbrow. Besides this though, members’ housing privileges also include free water and electricity, all cleaning and domestic services, gardening, security, Internet and phone, insurance and removal expenses. If the ministers want to have a private social function at their public residences, the state even chips in a free marquee, lighting, tables and chairs for “at least 150 guests”.

The gravy continues to flow when members and their families “out of necessity”, are somehow not able to make use of any of their official homes or numerous state residences when on “official business”. In these cases, they are entitled to stay at “any hotel or hostelry” at the expense of the state, something that has clearly put a big smile on the faces of a number of five-star establishments both at home and abroad. The minister doesn’t even have to hand over any of his or her spare change during such “temporary stays” since the state also covers all “reasonable out-of-pocket expenses”. As if that is not enough, there is a further subsistence allowance available to “compensate him or her for incidental expenses not paid for by the host”.

Next, comes a host of mind-boggling travel “benefits”. Not only do all members receive a motor vehicle allowance which is 25% of their basic salary (itself not subject to acquiring ownership of a private vehicle), the state provides two official cars for national ministers and one for the less fortunate.

When official vehicles are “not available” the state will cover the costs of “any transport” for the members and their spouses and also all transport expenses for family members when the minister is away on “official business”.

When ministers take to the air on “official business” ubuntu gets thrown even further out the window. It is business class on domestic flights and first class internationally. But if there are “time constraints” or the “facilities of commercial airlines are not cost-effective and/or readily available”, our political elite can make use of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) as well as chartered aircraft.

If anyone has concerns that our political illuminati might join the vast majority of the population in old-age poverty once they have left office, put them to rest. With the state’s monthly contribution standing at 17% of basic salary, each minister is guaranteed a retirement “benefit … equal to 92,5% of pensionable salary”. Even better for these public representatives, while there is no official retirement age for ordinary folks in South Africa, the handbook informs us that their “normal” retirement age is 50 years old. Talk about a sunset clause.

There you have it — it certainly pays to be a top-level public servant. The contents of the handbook clearly obviate the need, if there ever was one, for us to take seriously the continued political propaganda about how our top politicians are close to the people. What we have here is the official sanctioning of a better life for the few, in the name of the many. Thomas Sankara, where are you?

• Dr McKinley is an independent writer, researcher, lecturer and political activist based in Johannesburg. This article first appeared on the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service:

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