Consumer Watch

Wendy Knowler fights for your rights...

John Scott Masthead
November 3 2011 at 11:19

The four cabinet ministers who refused to tell Parliament how much they and their deputies had spent on hotel accommodation since 2009 have altruistic reasons for doing so.

Everyone assumes that the four – Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, Energy Minister Dipuo Peters, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant and Co-operative Governance Minister Richard Baloyi – were afraid that spending taxpayers’ money on big hotel bills would earn them the same reputation as Sicelo Shiceka, if the details became public.

Shiceka and his staff became famous for staying in the One&Only Hotel in Cape Town at a cost of R640 000, because he found a mosquito or two in his official R9m Oranjezicht residence, and was then fired from the cabinet by a suddenly decisive President Jacob Zuma.

But by now the president must know why his ministers are all spending more and more time in top hotels. They are doing their utmost to stop the South African hotel industry from floundering. Were it not for the ministers’ loyal custom, even more hotels would have closed.

Tony Romer-Lee, chief executive of a five-star hotel chain, says occupancies are the worst they have ever been: “Without doubt every single hotelier or restaurateur will tell you they have never seen it so bad. They will also tell you the outlook for the next couple of years is also bleak.”

Hyprop, the firm that closed the landmark Grace Hotel in Rosebank, Johannesburg, explained: “Corporate business has migrated away from five-star accommodation.”

And Professor Matthew Lester of Rhodes University’s commerce faculty declared: “Only a small pool of South Africans now have the means to stay in hotels.”

President Zuma’s ministers realised they needed to enlarge that pool and compensate for corporate business’s migration away from five-star accommodation, if the hotel industry were to be saved.

You will notice that the president did not fire Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, who reputedly spent 174 days in hotels, at a cost of R1.6m. She is a star performer, and the industry is deeply in her debt, albeit that the debt is being funded by the taxpayers.

The cabinet ministers who declined to say where they stayed and at what cost are obviously embarrassed about the public knowing how big a sacrifice they have made in the interests of the tourism economy. They could so easily have insisted on home comforts and domestic bliss.

Instead they chose to sleep in strange beds and be served by unfamiliar people.

But it isn’t easy. Who really wants (and I quote from a V&A Waterfront hotel brochure) “sumptuously-appointed oversized baths with rain shower, private water closet and dual marble vanity” while their suite is attended by “the discreet services of dedicated butlers available 24 hours a day”?

Yet, at R4 950 a night, it helps to keep the hotel running, for which we should all be grateful.

That doesn’t include dinner, by the way, which is also “a sumptuous experience” with a 5 000-bottle cellar to choose from of undiscovered and rare South African vintages.

Someone has to do it. And in the absence of an increasing number of ordinary South Africans, who is more qualified than President Zuma’s enlarged cabinet?

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