Melanie Verwoerd

Melanie Verwoerd: Taxpayers can’t be the only ones to tighten their belts

2020-01-29 05:00
Ministers and deputy ministers should be required to tighten their belts like the rest of us and forego extravagances like taxpayer-funded business class flights. (Gallo Images, Getty Images)

Ministers and deputy ministers should be required to tighten their belts like the rest of us and forego extravagances like taxpayer-funded business class flights. (Gallo Images, Getty Images)

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Parliamentarians are entitled to a good salary and sufficient pension benefits, but these kinds of luxuries belong to a time of surplus and have no place in the current economic and political climate, writes Melanie Verwoerd

This weekend one of the Sunday newspapers published a front page story under the title "Deputy Minister bust in lobolo 'subsidy'".

According to the report, Social Development deputy minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu offered to take a would-be in-law who was employed in her office on four international trips so that he could save up money to pay lobolo for her niece.

The newspaper apparently got hold of a voice recording of the conversation between deputy minister Bogopane-Zulu and Zwidofhela Mafoko, during which she suggests that he accompanies her on four international trips to allow him to use part of his daily S&T allowance (R14 000 – R18 000 per trip) and save the rest to pay the lobolo.

Of course there is nothing wrong about eating cup-a-soup and drinking rooibos tea that you brought from home in your hotel room to save some money, but the amounts seem obscene – especially given that most official costs would have been paid.

However, it is the rest of the story that really left me gobsmacked.

According to the report, Bogopane-Zulu said that she wanted to employ someone with a disability in her office.

For this the deputy minister should be applauded.

Apparently her staff told her about Mafoko, but indicated that they couldn't employ him presumably for lack of qualifications, given that he only had matric and according to the deputy minister's account was working as a fruit and vegetable hawker close to the ministerial offices in Pretoria at the time.

The deputy minister then met Mafoko and appointed him. Soon after he met his future wife at an official function and in 2016, the lobolo discussion took place with the deputy minister.

Apparently on the recording Bogopane-Zulu explained that he could get up to R18 000 per trip of which he could save upwards of R10 000. Travel manifests seen by the newspaper suggest that he then went on trips to New York, Geneva and Eswatini.

Bogopane-Zulu defended this, saying she had introduced the idea of rotating staff for overseas trips.

It is important to mention that Mafoko was accused of rape in 2016, the same year of the lobolo conversation.

Not only did he keep on working while out on bail, he even approached Bogopane-Zulu for a promotion from his middle-level position to a vacant deputy director post - so he could pay lobolo. (At least he can't be accused of a shortage of chutzpah!)

The deputy minister says she declined this request because he had been promoted to a higher-level post three months earlier and did not meet the requirements for the deputy director post.

Who would have thought?

This story (if correct) illustrates so much that is wrong in the public sector.

A guy who works as a fruit and vegetable vendor with only matric gets appointed into middle management. (He claims he was a photographer at the time.)

After being charged with rape, he not only keeps on working, but tries to get a promotion to deputy-director and then the deputy minister offers him a few trips overseas to help with his personal financial issues - trips that should be to benefit the country, not to be used by Bogopane-Zulu to bestow favours or as cash reward.

At the end of last year Minister Senzu Mchunu announced a radical cutback in the benefits for Ministers and Deputy Ministers.

For example: they now have to fly economy class on short haul flights. Tickets for their spouses have been reduced and car allowances capped.

This, together with other changes, are good news.

However, I could not find any mention of changes to the travel benefits for former ministers, deputy ministers and their spouses. According to the 2019 Ministerial Handbook, a retired minister was entitled to 48 business class flights per annum and a deputy minister 36, while spouses of former ministers and deputies were allowed 24 and 18 business class flights respectively.

In case you are wondering: for life!

And guess who is paying for it? Parliament (not the ministries), which of course get their money from us taxpayers.

This is truly absurd.

In theory that would mean that someone like Bridget Motsepe Radebe, one of the richest women in South Africa, could use this benefit (I trust that she doesn't).

Many former ministers and deputies get appointed to other state bodies after serving in Cabinet and yet are still entitled to these benefits. One such deputy minister subsequently got divorced and his new wife is now entitled to those free flights.

For life!

Parliamentarians are entitled to a good salary and sufficient pension benefits, but these kinds of luxuries belong to a time of surplus and have no place in the current economic and political climate.

In the February budget Tito Mboweni will undoubtedly ask voters to tighten their belts. The people's representatives and the public servants are meant to serve us as taxpayers.

There can be no justification for these elaborate benefits or misuse of allowances.

They, of all people, should set an example and tighten their belts an extra notch or two.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland

See www.melanieverwoerd.co.za

Read more on:    economy  |  taxpayers  |  ministers
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