Responding to newspaper reports that several Cabinet ministers and deputies stayed in the most expensive hotels in Cape Town and had meals at taxpayers’ expense that cost more than the average monthly salary of a domestic worker – all because they could not possibly stay in the houses allocated to them because (oh, horror!) the curtains were stained, some furniture was not up to scratch or the carpets were a bit frayed – Mthembu blew a gasket.
The biggest culprit is of course Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda, who spent more than R500 000 on luxury accommodation at one of Cape Town’s most expensive hotels after spending almost R1.1million each on two new official vehicles, including R150 000 of “absolutely essential extras”. Nyanda also happens to be at the centre of a fight with Cosatu’s Zwelenzima Vavi after Vavi demanded that President Jacob Zuma launch an investigation into the widely reported claims that Nyanda had unlawfully enriched himself through crooked government tenders.
The Times reported yesterday on Mthembu’s statement: “The ruling party said in a statement issued yesterday that the “attack” on its ministers confirmed its long-held suspicion that ANC ministers were being “targeted”. “There is nothing immoral, illegal or unconstitutional in public representatives staying in hotels, as this is not a breach of the Public Finance Management Act, or the provisions of the ministerial handbook,” said Mthembu.
It reported that since Zuma was elected president, government departments and state-owned enterprises have blown more that R1.5bn on cars, parties, World Cup tickets and other luxuries. But the ANC said yesterday the media was “failing” in its work to “properly inform” the public about laws governing accommodation of public representatives.
“In line with the ministerial handbook and prescripts governing public representatives, Cabinet ministers, MPs, MECs and MPLs are entitled to stay in hotels while their permanent accommodation is not yet ready for occupation,” Mthembu said.
His statement is interesting for several reasons. First he blames the media for reporting – accurately – on the exorbitant cost of these jaunts to the most luxurious and expensive hotels which cater for millionaires.
How dare the media report on the facts! That is obviously why we need a Media Appeals Tribunal: to stop the media from reporting accurately on proven facts if those facts embarrass the greedy and immoral Cabinet ministers. The allegations of a plot are so ridiculous that one fears for Mthembu’s sanity.
He actually wants us to believe that members of the media sit in dark rooms and say: “Well, our readers will not really care about this wasteful spending, but because we are all Dr Evils (with our own Mini-Me De Vos as a sidekick!) we will use these completely irrelevant facts of no interest to anyone as part of our dark conspiracy to discredit the ANC. ”
Second, Mthembu conflates what is legal with what is immoral, revealing that he utterly lacks a moral compass. Because this kind of scandalous expenditure is allowed by the ministerial handbook, he argues, it cannot be immoral. With respect, this line of reasoning displays a warped and perverted sense of morality. To argue that everything that is legal is also moral, is to show such a breathtaking and scary lack of understanding of morality, that it makes one believe the absolute worst of those who peddle this nonsense.
Let us think about this some more.
Every day, millions of South Africans go hungry because they have no food. Millions do not have houses to sleep in and are cold and wet. Every day thousands do not receive the medical care they need and some die. Many children do not receive even the basic education that could help them succeed in life. Although not every single person who suffers like this could be assisted immediately, the State could do much to alleviate the plight of those who are suffering by wisely and effectively using our taxes to address problems of poverty and service delivery.
Yet, ministers stay in the most luxurious hotels (while perfectly habitable accommodation is available elsewhere at no or little cost), eat oysters and caviar and drink the most expensive wines, drive around in cars that cost more than most South Africans earn in a lifetime. In my universe, this seems immoral. The fact that Nyanda and Mthembu think it is not, I would contend, reflects rather badly on their value system and poses questions about their humanity.
Maybe they are lovely people, but on the available evidence in the public domain, I would guess they are callous, selfish and greedy, and lack the basic decency one would expect from a servant of the people voted into office to serve the vulnerable and marginalised. But like most people who lack compassion and have an overinflated sense of themselves, they do not have the necessary wisdom to reflect on who they are and how their actions might seem to ordinary, decent, people. Instead, they blame others for their bad publicity.
They should be ashamed . Pity, on the available evidence, they won’t.
Professor Pierre de Vos is Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at the University of Cape Town. His blog is Constitutionally Speaking