newspaper Monday reported that Human Settlements Tokyo Sexwale, who is tasked with providing housing and bulk infrastructure to the poor, is telling disgruntled South Africans demanding basic services that government finance “is getting thin”.
He is right. Finance minister Pravin Gordhan, the former chief tax collector, has already told us government revenue will undershoot projections by at least R60 billion. In addition government spending is likely to exceed the about R700 billion planned. The difference will be made up through lending, reversing a recent trend that saw government collect more in tax than it spent.
Sexwale reportedly spent much of this weekend Thokoza, a township east of Johannesburg, according to the paper “winning over the crowd with sharp wit, before moving to the serious business of telling the clearly irate community of the government’s limitations.”
He added: “We don’t want to make promises which are not there. We must be businesslike.”
According to South Africa`s 1996 White Paper on Defence the country`s national security priority is reversing the poverty and misery the bulk of the people live in.
Clearly, in the light of circumstances this priority must be enforced, economies must be made and wastage eliminated.
Sexwale, Gordhan and Justice minister Jeff Radebe seem to be doing so. Last week The Times reported Sexwale, a black empowerment billionaire, “will only be flying economy in a bid to slash travel, accommodation and administration costs.”
His spokesman, Chris Vick, said Sexwale told his staff that they needed to lead by example, and tighten up on expenditure, particularly on big-ticket items such as travel.
But not everyone shares this enthusiasm.
A slew of Cabinet ministers and other high profile officials in President Jacob Zuma`s government have purchased expensive official vehicles and defended the acquisitions on grounds that it is justified by the security threat they face, necessary to discharge their mandate and in any case allowed by the “Ministerial Handbook”.
This document allows ministers and deputy ministers to purchase state-owned official vehicles to a value posted at 70% of their salaries. Ministers earn R1.6 million a year and deputy ministers R1.3 million.
Among the ministers who have bought pricy cars are Higher Education Minister and general secretary of the South African Communist Party Blade Nzimande, who purchased an imported BMW 750i worth R1.1million.
Nzimande has previously spoken against greed and selfishness in the public sector and indeed did so again this week.
But then he was just following in the footsteps of Communication Minister Siphiwe Nyanda, who bought two BMW 750i`s costing R2.5million.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan by contrast has bought a “modest” Lexus for R557 673 and an Audi A6 for R590 500.
Gordhan was last month tasked by Cabinet to propose economy measures but has yet to report back.
The opposition Democratic Alliance has thoroughly enjoyed the situation, issuing statement after press release highlighting the latest “excess” and the opportunity cost.
The party last Thursday crowed that answers received in reply to questions it submitted to all government departments “are responsible for bringing this issue to the public`s attention”.
That is what opposition parties are for.
And let`s face it; the ministers here picked a rod for their own backs. Doing the maths the DA says that should every minister, deputy minister, premier and MEC spend the full amount allowed by the handbook on vehicles – which thankfully is not the case – the total cost would come to approximately R240 million (for some 220 motor vehicles).
“That`s a breathtaking amount of money to spend on luxuries – enough to have built 5 500 houses, 25 schools, or to pay the salaries of 1 500 nurses.
“It is an indictment on the ANC government that, during a period where our economy and the South African people are under intense financial pressure, the executive has seen fit to indulge its own ego to the extent it has.”
Indeed, government figures show the recession has cost 475 000 people their jobs since September last year, taking unemployment into the 30% range. Put another way, one out of three South Africans of working age are not.
And the people have noticed.
“We vote for people to buy expensive cars and expensive houses to live in, after that they don’t care for us,” read one placard at the Sexwale teach-in with many others referring to the lack of services in their area.
“They keep telling us they don’t have budgets. Maybe next year,” Phatiswa Mapini, who has lived in a shack for more than a decade told The Star.
The Congress of SA Trade Unions, and increasingly dominant force in the ruling party to which it is allied, has also taken note.
The trade union federation last week called on ministers to return pricey, imported, models and buy modest vehicles. (They could have added, but did not, made in SA by SA workers).
Spokesman Patrick Craven said called “on ministers who have used the government rule book to buy R1million plus vehicles to kindly return them and replace them with the kind of modest cars bought by comrade Pravin Gordhan and others.”
“Spending so much money on vehicles is a slap in the face of the unemployed and people living in shanty towns,” Craven added.
“It encourages the view that government office is a stepping stone to quick and easy personal wealth,” Craven said.
Craven said the government should adopt a new set of rules “based on the revolutionary ethos and morality of the ANC that promotes public interest over selfish interests”.
A final thought: While ministers do need vehicles to get around and “discharge their
mandate”, these vehicles probably do not need back seat entertainment systems. Neither has anyone questioned the nature or severity of the security threat ministers allegedly face. If it is indeed real, would a more discreet, armoured, vehicle not be a better choice than a top-range “bling mobile”.
Lastly, just because it is okay by the ministerial handbook does not mean it squares with the public. It also confuses entitlement with right.