Letter written to the Speaker of the National Assembly, Ms Baleka Mbete, from Mr N Kwankwa, MP (UDM Chief Whip in the National Assembly)
Dear Madam Speaker
THE PEOPLE’S PARLIAMENT MUST GET ITS PRIORITIES RIGHT: PARLIAMENTARY OVERSIGHT VISITS ARE NOT PROPERLY RESOURCED
This matter has reference.
Last week, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committees on Public Enterprises and Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, went to Johannesburg for an oversight visit. The visit pertained to the resolution of a conflict between Eskom and Soweto residents (particularly in Diepkloof, Orlando East and Soweto pensioners) regarding installation of prepaid meters in the area.
We were on site for several days; arriving on Tuesday, 21 March staying until Friday, 24 March 2017. Our programme consisted of meeting sessions with the aggrieved community members, aged persons, from 10:00 to 16:30 – which means that we were continuously engaged for six and a half hours per day.
Absolutely zero provision was made to ensure our basic comfort; there was not even a jug of water available. Madam Speaker, I am not talking about luxuries here! Just a simple thing, like keeping us hydrated during the course of our work, was seemingly too much to expect.
On one occasion, the Members of Parliament went on a hunt, on foot, to find a decent eating establishment in a shopping mall; this was not a productive use of our time.
On another occasion, I had slipped out (in the rain) of the consultation session to buy something to eat and drink, since I could no longer concentrate. I hurried to minimise the time spent outside that session.
The only available shopping spot was a spaza shop, where the selection was so limited, I out of desperation, bought a packet of biscuits. As I slipped back with the open packet of biscuits, a queue of elderly people started to form in search of something to eat. I shared my meagre proviant, not only with them, but also with my colleagues (a packet of biscuits only went so far).
The seniors complained bitterly. They asked what kind of Parliament, forces the elderly to engage with it, for hours at a time over several days, without any light refreshment, whilst we as representatives of Parliament, knew that they were elderly and that many suffered from diabetes.
I, to my horror, later discovered that the packet of biscuits had expired. Having bought it at a spaza shop might explain that, but keep in mind that aside from eating them myself, I shared these biscuits with the pensioners and colleagues. The repercussions of possible food poising would have been devastating. In the end, should that have happened, it would have made me personally responsible for such a dire consequence.
The whole situation was embarrassing for me as a Member of Parliament, because I was forced to leave a meeting, which was disrespectful, and could have led me to missing important information. It reflected badly on Parliament, and I certainly felt beleaguered.
When I raised my dissatisfaction about the situation with the committees’ leadership, they explained that this situation arose because of budget cuts on oversight work.
Madam Speaker, we are constantly reminded that Parliament must cut back on its expenses; and especially eliminate frivolous ones. The United Democratic Movement (UDM) wholeheartedly agrees with the instruction of National Treasury that we should tighten our belts, but I have two problems with what happened last week:
1) Providing water (at the very least) would not have broken the bank and it would have ensured a basic level of comfort for the Members of Parliament, as well as the elderly members of the public, during hours’ worth of consultation time with the affected communities. It requires sustenance and stamina to keep mentally engaged and physically able to do such work.
2) Secondly, any contention that there is no money to provide for, even the basics, is preposterous. This is because, as late as December last year, Parliament’s Secretary was defended on the official parliamentary Twitter account following an exposé in City Press that revealed Mr Gengezi Mgidlana spent over R40 000 on being chauffeur-driven in a Mercedes-Benz on a so-called study visit in Budapest in July 2016. We also read that an extra R1020 was incurred for a taxi trip to the airport.
To add further insult, this was not the first time that his lavish travel style has been on South Africans’ dime. Earlier reports revealed that he, together with senior parliamentary staff, spent millions of Rands on so-called benchmarking trips last year. Flying business class and staying in five-star hotels in the United Kingdom and Turkey. While in London, we heard, Mr Mgidlana stayed in a R14 050-per-night (at that time, R42 150 for three nights) room at the luxurious Conrad London St James Hotel. In another instance, he had also incurred a bill of R52 638 for six nights at the Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton earlier in 2016.
What makes matters worse, is your past condonation of this abuse of public money by the Parliamentary officials in question.
Madame Speaker, it is clear that something is wrong with the running of Parliament’s business. How is it possible, never mind justifiable, that the Secretary of Parliament can literally blow millions of Rands, but a few thousand Rands can’t be made available to facilitate our work as public representatives.
Lastly, as part of the cost saving measures, Members of Parliament had been told that we are provided with a subsistence and travel allowance and we should spend this money on sustenance during the day. That is all fine and well, but I had left work on Friday and was only refunded the food expenses I incurred that evening. This lackadaisical administrative approach creates concern about Parliament’s administration and its finances.
Given the Secretary of Parliament’s (and other officials) reckless spending and clearly frivolous joy-rides, the call for us to tighten our belts rings hollow.
Madam Speaker, Government does not have its priorities right.
To my mind, it is clearly more important to ensure the quality of our work in service of the People’s Parliament (by providing at least some basic sustenance to Members of Parliament – as well as the public – on oversight visits) than having Parliament’s officials romping around the world in the most expensive way possible.
The UDM calls on your office to review Parliament’s budget, especially the allocation of travel expenses to officials, as well as the allocation of resources to ensure that one of the core functions of Parliament, i.e. oversight visits, are adequately resourced to maximise the positive impact our work must have on the daily lives of South Africans.
Mr Nqabayomzi Kwankwa, MP
UDM Chief Whip