Cape Town - FINANCIAL austerity does not appear to figure as a priority in South Africa’s diplomatic missions.
This week it emerged that the Department of International Relations and Co-operation has budgeted more than R1.5 billion to repair and build properties for foreign diplomatic missions over the next five years.
Included in this figure is a staggering R70 million earmarked for eight staff houses in neighbouring Swaziland, whose currency is pegged to the rand.
These figure come from the department’s newly-published five-year strategic plan. It includes building new chanceries – where diplomatic missions conduct their official business – buying or leasing land, as well as maintenance and renovations to official residences abroad.
Some of the most costly and eyebrow-raising sums include R153m to refurbish the chancery in Washington in the US, where the building, in what is termed “Embassy Row”, has been undergoing major construction work to accommodate larger staff numbers.
In an interview with Washington Diplomat in February last year, South African ambassador to the US Ebrahim Rasool said: “It’s a symbol of South Africa’s diplomatic and strategic relationship with the United States that we are investing so heavily in consolidating our offices and purchasing separate residences for both the ambassador and his deputy. Coming in a US recession, this has been quite a help to the local construction industry.”
A replica of the statue of Nelson Mandela by artist Jean Doyle, which stands outside the old Victor Verster prison in Paarl, has also been acquired for outside the embassy, although Rasool embarked on a fund-raising drive to cover its costs.
The renovation is expected to be completed by September.
Other spending of more than R100m in different countries includes R125m in Beijing, China, R132m in The Hague, and R120m in Luanda, Angola – widely considered to be one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to live.
In addition, R82m has been set aside to upgrade the chancery in Juba, the capital of South Sudan; R75m to refurbish the chancery and the official residence in Paris; and R70m for eight staff houses in Mbabane, Swaziland. An additional R39m is allocated for the construction of a chancery there.
The department also has an R800 000 project to draw up plans for “standard design for chanceries and officials’ residences”, which is projected to be finished this year.
Despite the large budget, little money has been spent to date, although a number of projects are due for completion at the end of this financial year.
R4.5m (of a budgeted R63m) has been spent on building a diplomatic mission and staff housing in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. Some documents indicate this amount will build six houses, while others indicate three staff houses, in addition to a chancery.
Just more than R3m has been spent on renovating the ambassador’s official residence in Japan, out of a projected total cost of R42m.
In response to a parliamentary question in 2009, the department said the official residence in Tokyo was deemed “unsafe”, and would be undergoing “extensive” renovations, which were due to start in 2010.
The ambassador was meanwhile staying in rented accommodation at a cost of R1.9m a year, the response said.
The 2013 budget states that R202.9m has been budgeted for the construction of new chanceries, offices and accommodation in 2013/14. This increases to R213.9m in 2014/15, and to R223.8m in 2015/16.
“In particular, the department will complete the construction of chanceries in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), and Lilongwe (Malawi), and progress substantially with the construction of chanceries in Kigali (Rwanda) and Mbabane (Swaziland),” the 2013 budget document says.
The department was also investigating private-public partnerships for the development and construction of chanceries on vacant, state-owned land in India, Saudi Arabia, Mali, Botswana and Uruguay.
The spokesman for the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, Clayson Monyela, said the department had an ever-increasing mandate, but a shrinking budget.
“For example, three years ago we were not a member of Brics, but now we are.”
The expenditure on housing diplomatic missions abroad was in line with “what countries all over the world are doing, by moving away from renting buildings and accommodation, to buying them”.
“So if you look at that budgeted figure compared with what we would be paying in rentals, you will see that it really is a prudent financial move,” Monyela argued.
According to the document, South Africa currently has 124 missions in 107 countries. It owns 25 chanceries, one consulate, 35 official residences, 66 staff houses, 16 vacant plots of land, and one parking bay.
The department rents hundreds of properties worldwide to accommodate staff and missions.
A breakdown in the 2007-2010 strategic plan indicates that the country was renting 92 chanceries, 76 official residences and 436 properties for staff housing. No similar breakdown is given in the current plan, but the figures will have changed slightly as three extra chanceries have since been acquired.
What’s being spent:
* R153 million to refurbish the chancery in Washington, DC. The building, in what is termed “Embassy Row”, has been undergoing major construction work to accommodate larger staff numbers. According to the website of the contractor, the renovations include “major demolition of the interior”, upgraded safety systems, the cleaning and restoration of the limestone exterior, new windows and new slate roofing, and the “meshing of historical finishes with a new, modern look”. The renovation is expected to be completed by September.
* R125m to acquire a new chancery in Beijing, China. No money has yet been spent on this project.
* R82m to upgrade the chancery in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Much of this will be spent only between 2014 and 2016.
* R120m to build a new chancery in Luanda, Angola. According to the South African mission to Angola website, this new building will be inaugurated next month.
l R132m to improve South Africa’s diplomatic mission in The Hague, which includes renovations to the consulate and the official residence. According to departmental documents, the mission in the Netherlands is based on two separate properties. No specific details for this renovation could be found in official documents, although one document lists it as being among several properties which would undergo refurbishments such as “structural upgrades of buildings, lifts, electrical works and renovations”.
* R100m to secure a 100-year lease for the Crown land in London on which the chancery is built.
* R75m to refurbish the chancery and the official residence in Paris.
* R70m for eight staff houses in Mbabane, Swaziland. An additional R39m is allocated for the construction of a chancery.