Pierre de Vos, Constitutionally Speaking – 29 May 2018
Earlier this week it was reported that the Presidency is reviewing the practice of some Cabinet Ministers to take their spouses and/or adult family members with them on official international trips. This practice is currently allowed by the Ministerial Handbook, which has not been amended since it was adopted in 2007 – despite several promises over the years that it would be amended to curtail costs.
Revelations that former Finance Minister and current Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, spent R873 366.68 of taxpayers’ money on taking his wife to investor roadshows to China, the UK and the US, raised some eyebrows. But this was perfectly legal as the Ministerial Handbook allows a Minister to take his or her spouse on official international trips at state expense.
This is because the Ministerial Handbook explicitly authorises a Minister and his or her spouse (or alternatively an adult family member) to travel first class when they go on official international visits. In fact, not only Ministers, but also Deputy Ministers, Premiers, Members of the Executive Council (MEC) of a Province and Presiding Officers and Deputy Presiding Officers in Parliament or in a Provincial Legislature are entitled to these and many other perks as provided for in the Ministerial Handbook (which is oddly marked as “confidential”).
The Handbook also provides for a daily accommodation and subsistence allowance for all the individuals listed above as well as for their spouses accompanying them, when they travel on official visits abroad. They may be compensated for their reasonable actual accommodation expenditure and also receive a daily allowance (for three meals and other incidental expenditure such as tips, room service, reading material and normal liquid refreshments) “equal to 110% of the daily allowance payable to Directors-General during visits abroad”.
Should the daily allowance be insufficient, their “reasonable actual expenditure on meals may be reimbursed” and an additional daily allowance for incidental expenditure is also payable to them in terms of the applicable rules.
Both the relevant Ministers, Deputy Minister, Premier, Member of the Executive Council (MEC) of a Province and Presiding Officer and Deputy Presiding Officer in Parliament or in a Provincial Legislature and their spouses are entitled to this allowance.
However, when Ministers and Deputy Ministers wish to go on official international trips, they are required to approach the President in writing, two weeks in advance of a planned official visit abroad, to request approval for the intended visit and the appointment of an Acting Minister. The Handbook states that Ministers and Deputy Ministers may only travel on official visits abroad if these are essential, in the national interest and with due regard to the availability of Departmental funds.
The Ministerial Handbook also provides many other perks for these elected officials at national and provincial level, which they enjoy over and above their salaries. In 2017 Ministers earned R2.309 million per year, Deputy Ministers R1.901 million per year, the Speaker of the National Assembly and Chairperson of the NCOP earned R2.716 per year, and Premiers earned R2.173 per year.
In 2013, after criticism by members of the public about the extent of some of the perks provided for in the Ministerial Handbook, the then Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan announced austerity measures for ministers in his medium-term budget review. However, it is not clear that these measures were ever implemented.
Shortly after the announcement by Gordhan in 2013, the late Collins Chabane, who served as Minister in the Office of the President, stated that “long-awaited amendments” to the Ministerial Handbook (partly to give effect to Gordhan’s announcement) would be finalised “soon”.
But the following year it was again reported in the media that the Department of Public Service and Administration was conducting a review of the Ministerial Handbook. By 2016, amendments to the Handbook had still not been approved.
In January 2016 Department of Public Service and Administration spokesman Dumisani Nkwamba was reported in the media as saying that an interministerial committee had completed a review of the Handbook. “The revised handbook will be scheduled for presentation to the Cabinet following the required processes,” he said. “It has to be discussed in detail.”
Those discussions must be continuing because by the time of writing no amendments to the Ministerial Handbook have been announced. However, the government did publish a Presidential Handbook in November 2015 which details the perks of the President, his or her spouse and dependent children, and the Deputy President and his or her spouse. Before 2015 it was unclear whether the Ministerial Handbook also applied to the President and Deputy President.
The Ministerial Handbook is 115 pages long and provides extensive detail of the various perks that office bearers like Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Premiers, Members of the Executive Council (MEC) of a Province and Presiding Officers and Deputy Presiding Officers in Parliament or in a Provincial Legislature are entitled to.
Apart from the right to embark on official international trips at taxpayers’ expense, the perk that has been reported on most extensively relates to the provision of official vehicles which are provided for in chapter 5 of the Handbook. This chapter states that national office bearers may be provided with one vehicle for use in Cape Town and one vehicle for use in Pretoria and provincial office bearers may be provided with one vehicle for use at their seat of office.
It prescribes that the total purchase price of the vehicle chosen by the office bearer may not exceed 70% of the inclusive annual remuneration package of that office bearer. That means a Minister is entitled to an official vehicle to the cost of up to R1.6 million in both Cape Town and Pretoria. (I am not an expert on car prices, so have no idea whether it would be possible to buy a car in South Africa for R1.6 million – it seems improbable that any car could cost that much.)
The various office bearers at national and provincial level are also entitled to generous domestic travel benefits. As one would expect, members and their spouses (or an adult family member accompanying them) are entitled to business class travel for official purposes at the expense of the Departments concerned. Dependent children of office bearers may accompany or join their parents on official domestic journeys if they cannot remain at home, at the expense of the Department concerned.
But even when office bearers and their spouses are not travelling on official business their travel will be subsidised. Office bearers and their spouses are jointly entitled to 30 single domestic business class flight tickets per year at the expense of the relevant Department, which they can use at their discretion. Dependent children are each entitled to six single domestic economy class tickets per annum to reunite with their parents during the Member’s regular travel between Cape Town and Pretoria.
The relevant office bearers are also entitled to free accommodation. The Handbook states that office bearers may occupy, for official purposes, one State-owned residence, in the capital of their choice, free of charge. If available, office bearers may occupy a second State-owned residence in the other capital, for official purposes. In this event a monthly market related rental is payable.
The Handbook also states that the costs of employing a domestic worker responsible for the cleaning of the official and private residences will be paid by the Department of Public Works. Such cost will include remuneration of a domestic worker as well as the cost for all cleaning materials, equipment, chemicals and toiletries.
These cleaning services, however, do not include ironing, cooking and washing of clothes, unless agreement is reached and arrangement is made for payment of the additional tasks with the domestic worker. (I am here using the same language that is deployed in the Ministerial Handbook.) Where necessary, office bearers may, at their own expense, appoint additional staff to provide domestic services at State-owned residences.
It is unclear whether the announcement by the Presidency earlier this week will finally result in the long-promised overhaul of the Ministerial Handbook. The current Ministerial Handbook was drafted in secret and for some time officials treated its content as confidential. Ordinary voters foot the bill for the perks granted by the Ministerial Handbook. They do this by, among other things, paying 15% VAT on every item they purchase.
The secretive process followed when the 2007 Handbook was compiled is not in accordance with principles of open, transparent and accountable government. It is therefore important that any process to review the Handbook is open and transparent and that members of the public get a chance to comment on any draft before it is adopted. This is not a confidential matter and should not be treated as such.