Ferial Haffajee: Big budgets cushion bigwigs from the consequences of poor government

In the main, there is no load-shedding in the state’s prestige accommodation portfolio, which includes "the residences of parliamentarians, ministers, deputy ministers, the deputy president and president" in Cape Town and Pretoria.

At the weekend, the Sunday Times revealed that improved generating capacity is being installed at the estates where Cabinet members and deputy ministers reside, and at the parliamentary villages MPs live in when Parliament is in session.

Public Works spokesman Thami Mchunu told Fin24 that not all ministers have generators, but he could provide no further detail.

Looking after VIPs is a significant part of the work of the Department of Public Works, which is the custodian of the government’s property portfolio.

The Budget 2019 Estimates of National Expenditure reveals that the Department of Public Works Prestige Policy programme saw spending almost double on the big-wigs between 2017 and the adjusted appropriation vote at the financial year-end.

It went from a budgeted R69.6m to actual spending of R139m – growth of 24.2% per annum, which outstripped inflation by significant multiples. Mchunu said that this increase included the cost of state funerals.

Included in the spending are budgets for beefed-up security spending including on guard huts, electric fences and cameras and monitors.

Prestige clients

There are six (you read that right) policies to guide bureaucrats who oversee the prestige policy. Their KPAs include "providing movable assets within 60 working days to prestige clients". The Budget documents, usually loquacious, are cryptic on what exactly these movable assets are because providing luxury wheels for ministers is a whole other budget line.

The bureaucratic costs alone are significant: compensation of staff to run all the prestige projects alone came to R28.4m in the adjusted budgets of 2018/19, an annual increase of 22% over the measured medium-term expenditure framework.

South Africa’s elite live in gilded cages. In the main, they do not suffer the economic or social costs that have added to the productivity losses of the economy and of companies and individuals. Their homes are always on, we have now learnt.

There is more. Crime costs are going up as high crime rates mean that most working South Africans suffer an additional tax of securing themselves by way of burglar-proofing, electric fences and in suburbs, the purchase of private security.

At the Zondo commission of inquiry this week, former head of the Independent Police Investigating Directorate (IPID) Robert McBride detailed how state capture had created internecine warfare in the police service. One upshot is that crime has gone up and extracted a tax in the form of private security costs.


One reason the government allowed this to happen is that it is immune from the impact of crime because ministers and MPs are escorted and live in safety. The same is true for the two key areas the state is responsible for: education and health. In both of these, neither politicians nor civil servants responsible for the public health and education use these services.

There may be exceptions, but in the main, they use private schools and private hospitals. In many democracies, such a practice would see a government voted out because it means they do not trust for their own families and for themselves that which they build for their public.

Use your own service

But when I worked at City Press and we attempted to survey Cabinet members on whether they use public schools and hospitals, then government spokesman Mzwanele Manyi threw a dragnet over anybody answering. The only Cabinet minister who makes a habit of using the service he delivers is the Health minister Aaron Motsoeledi.

This gilded cage is one reason President Cyril Ramaphosa has pronounced himself repeatedly shocked on the election campaign trail – he looked genuinely perplexed when he got stuck on a train for hours and alarmed at the state of infrastructure outside the national road network.

Government, we now know, is largely responsible for load-shedding. Under former President Thabo Mbeki, the then government put off the essential maintenance of already ageing power plants. Under President Jacob Zuma, the patronage networks treated Eskom as a personal piggy bank.

I imagine that if MPs and ministers did suffer the serial indignities of regular power cuts, the situation would not have degenerated to where it was. Often, I wonder whether we need them at all or whether civil society, which saved us from full state failure due to state capture, might not do a better job? 

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