It pays to be in government

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IOL  pn cabinet06 GCIS File photo: GCIS

Other than earning fat salaries, the powerful coin it on expenses front, writes Kate Wilkinson.

When President Jacob Zuma’s announced his new cabinet in May it was described as bloated, a monster and a waste of money.

The EFF calculated that South Africa’s 35 ministers and 37 deputy ministers would cost taxpayers R720 million a year – or in the exaggeration of political speak, “almost a billion”.

But how much do South African taxpayers really cough up for their cabinet? And more controversially: what other benefits and privileges are cabinet members allowed to claim?

Inspecting salary slips

Cabinet members. Despite the recommendation of the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers that any government official whose annual salary package exceeds R1m should not receive an increase for 2013/14, Zuma afforded ministers and deputy ministers a 5 percent hike.

As a result, the salaries of deputy ministers increased to R1 734 835 for 2013/14 with ministers earning an additional R370 000 – or the annual salary of three entry-level nurses. (Salaries for 2014/15 have not been determined yet and will be backdated once it is.)

The prez and his deputy. The commission recommended that the deputy president’s salary should remain at R2 360 360 for 2013/14. But Zuma also granted his deputy a 5 percent increase, taking his salary to R2 478 378.

The president does not have a say in his own salary – the commission’s recommendations are debated in Parliament and then submitted to a vote. However, at the end of 2013, Zuma announced that he had declined a salary increase for the 2013/14 financial year, keeping it at R2 622 561.

The total in cabinet salaries for 2013/14 therefore came to R143 021 079.

A look at the perks

The Ministerial Handbook is a guide to the “benefits and privileges” that members of cabinet are entitled to, but government views it as a “classified, confidential document”. The Mail & Guardian newspaper managed to publish the 2007 version of the Ministerial Handbook, affording ordinary South Africans a glimpse of how far cabinet members’ perks stretch.

The Ministerial Handbook regulates everything from spending on Christmas cards to the picking of flowers at state residences (one needs permission from the chief horticulturalist to do so), but here is a look at the most often used – and abused – privileges:

* Private cars: Members of cabinet get 25 percent of their salary towards a private vehicle, its running and maintenance as well as comprehensive insurance. At an allowance of just more than R650 000 for Zuma, the president will be able to buy a sporty Mercedes-Benz SLK Roadster or a BMW 4 Series Convertible. But should he require higher clearance to reach his country home in Nkandla, a Land Rover Range Rover Evoque Si4 Pure also fits the budget.

Members receive this allowance whether or not they buy a car for themselves, burning up an additional R35 755 270 of taxpayers’ money at the latest salary determinations.

* Official vehicles: Ministers and deputy ministers are allowed to purchase one car for official use in Pretoria, as well as one in Cape Town.

The value of each vehicle cannot be more than 70 percent of their salary. At the current salary determinations, a minister could therefore buy two cars to the value of R1.5m each. (Note: Spending on official cars had been curbed in October last year by then-minister of finance Pravin Gordhan – to a suggested cap of R600 000 – but it is unclear whether it is being applied. Gordhan’s cost-cutting measures were approved by cabinet and also included putting an end to first class travel as well as cancelling government credit cards.)

Official vehicles can be replaced as soon as they have reached 120 000km, or have been in use for five years. Incoming Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene opted to continue using the R550 000 Nissan Pathfinder he had as deputy minister and urged fellow cabinet members to apply moderation in their choice of vehicles.

Cabinet members are allowed to use official vehicles “for any reasonable purpose”, including taking their kids to their schools.

* Accommodation: Cabinet members can live free of charge in one state-owned residence in the capital of their choice. If they want to move into a second state-owned house for official purposes they must pay a “market-related” rent. There is even a formula provided in the handbook to calculate this: (Salary) x 1 percent divided by 12.

So R2 106 ,607 per minister x 1 percent (21 066)/12 = R1 756 per month, a sum for which an ordinary South African can rent a backyard flat in Athlone (but you “need 2 make ur own kitchen”) or, for R100 more, share a house in Pretoria West.

The state pays for a domestic worker to clean cabinet members’ official and private houses and also picks up the bill for renovations.

* Travel: Cabinet members and their spouses may book first class tickets for official international journeys. (Note: Gordhan announced that cabinet members had to fly business class internationally, but again it is unclear whether it is being applied.) They are also both entitled to 30 single business class flights a year within South Africa. Dependent children get six single economy class flights per year.

If the cabinet member is not for flying, the handbook allows for them to travel by train – including South Africa’s luxury Blue Train. Rates for the Pretoria/Cape Town route range from R15 465 to R25 545 one way.

When travelling on official business, members, their spouses and dependent children can choose any hotel to stay in.

Other expenses: According to the Ministerial Handbook a cabinet members’ department can pay for all “reasonable” out-of-pocket expenses (“including gratuities and reading material, but excluding alcoholic beverages not consumed with a meal”) connected with the subsistence of the members, their spouses as well as family members who need to accompany them when travelling.

Slips only need to be supplied “if at all possible”.

Because of all the variables and unknowns it is impossible to predict what the new cabinet will cost South Africans beyond the members’ salaries and their private car allowances.

Fine print

As if cabinet members do not have enough scope in complying with the handbook, it is unclear which regulations they are supposed to follow at the moment. As far as Africa Check could establish, it currently sits awkwardly between the 2007 version of the Ministerial Handbook, cost cutting measures announced last year and a looming amendment of the handbook. Recently, a spokesman at the Treasury, Jabulani Sikhakhane, was reported to have said that “it is too early to tell how departments have responded to the cost-containment measures”.

And when contacted, Sikhakhane told us that spending on official cars was currently regulated by the handbook, not the cost-cutting measures. (Sikhakhane asked for our further questions – such as whether ministers are still able to travel first class internationally – to be e-mailed to him. We have not received a response to date.)

Last year, then-minister in the presidency Collins Chabane said that amendments to the Handbook and Gordhan’s cost-cutting measures would be aligned for consistency.

A spokesman at the Department of Public Service and Administration, Brent Simons, told Africa Check that the amended Ministerial Handbook “is currently with the Presidency for discussion at cabinet level”.

The moral of the story

Judith February, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies’ government, crime and justice division, argues that the amendment process should have involved the public.

“It should be the subject of public scrutiny and discussion because, after all, our public representatives spend public money when they spend money on accommodation and cars and other benefits of office,” she said.

“The Handbook is extraordinarily lenient in some respects allowing expenditure which could be excessive ordinarily….”

These sentiments are echoed by Murray Hunter, spokesman for the Right 2 Know Campaign: “There’s no excuse for secrecy in these matters, not only because it involves the use of public funds for private comfort but because it shines a light on the distance between the lives of those who are elected to lead, and ordinary citizens.”

* This article first appeared on Africa Check (www.africacheck.org), a non-profit organisation run from the journalism department at the University of the Witwatersrand, which promotes accuracy in public debate, testing claims made by public figures around the continent.

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