Before our economy descended into junk status, former Sars commissioner and then finance minister Pravin Gordhan identified frivolous expenditure and fiscal dumping as line items that must be curbed in December 2013.
The skittishness funded by taxpayers ranged from opulent office parties, business class tickets for civil servants, catering and entertainment expenses, bookings into upmarket hotels, as well as international trips undertaken by office-bearers, employees from all arms of the state and state-owned entities.
‘Fiscal dumping’ is complex to detect in annual reports and financial statements, but is still evident in a long-standing pattern. Often classified as fruitless expenditure by the auditor-general, ‘fiscal dumping’ as a phenomena is no different from KPMG creative bookkeeping. The goods and services procured may look legit and have ticked all the boxes, but there is something sinister in the nature of the services and timeframe in which it happened.
The public sector financial year commences on the 1st of April and comes to an end at the end of March. A cursory look at the culprits’ modus operandi shows they go on a gluttonous shopping spree a few months before the financial year end. Their egg-faced accounting officers and CFOs don’t have to motivate to Treasury why funds allocated must be clawed back. A crooked method to convince Treasury budgetary allocations were dispensed of.
Before the unceremonious removal of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, who was replaced by ‘weekend special’ minister Des van Rooyen, Treasury ran a tight ship in reading the riot act to offenders. Although the Auditor-General’s and Treasury’s figures revealed that wasteful spending on consultants, travel and catering reached up to R30 billion in the 2013/14 financial year, Nene told parliament he was not helplessly watching this rot.
In 2015, requests by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to buy alcohol for two functions that included a gala dinner for the announcement of the 2014 election results and three extra credit cards that Brand SA asked for “to carry out operations in foreign countries” were some of the 56 applications between November 2013 and August 2015 rejected by Treasury.
Only nine requests from austerity exemptions were granted.
In his February 2015 budget speech, Nene told parliament the austerity measures were working, with a 3% (R364 million) decrease in spending on consultants, a 6% (R571 million) decrease in travel and subsistence costs, and a 47% (R1.075 billion) decrease in catering, entertainment and events expenditure across all departments in the 2013/14 financial year. It is anybody’s guess whether Malusi Gigaba is equal to the task of cost-containment.
Where taxpayers’ money continues to be spent with an eager-beaver agility and most certainly an area that requires intense scrutiny are international trips, at times referred to as “study tours”, undertaken by politicians and administrators alike. We are talking an entourage of sojourners from municipalities and their entities, provincial governments and bodies answerable to them, national departments and state-owned entities across the board.
Perhaps there is a link between the ability to serve South Africans and foreign junkets by delegates from all the 47 departments, parliament, the judiciary, 12 Chapter 9 bodies, the Presidency and 73 ministers and their deputies, 131 state-owned entities and the 271 municipalities in the country. If they can’t explain why desktop research or a conference call shall not suffice as learning tools, they ought to report back comprehensively on why it was necessary to fly abroad.
Let’s face it, you are not going to say with a straight face that reports were handed to managers or committees and expect us not to dig around. That response is an epitome of arrogance towards the citizens and voters, the people who employ you. This culture of non-accountability in the public service can be partly attributed to some officials and civil servants whose psyche is of someone who believes the public must feel privileged to be under-served by.
Treasury and its provincial counterparts must be close the taps on this expenditure, particularly as there is anecdotal evidence that they are a fiscal haemorrhage without tangible and demonstrable benefits for the taxpayer. In case the mile-high flyers are petrified of suffering from cabin fever withdrawal symptoms and fear of not waking up in a foreign exotic city every month, the good news is most of them can afford holidays. They are well-paid.
In the interest of fairness and transparency, The Citizen has fielded questions to parliament and the nine provincial legislatures asking them to account for international trips expenditure between April 2010 and March 2016. Questions posed include foreign trips policy, the approval process, the number of trips undertaken and consequent expenditure, reports and recommendations and how they have contributed towards legislature work, if at all.
Gosebo Mathope is a Senior Online Political Journalist for The Citizen. You can follow the author @Gosebo_Mathope or email firstname.lastname@example.org