Public works minister Gwen “my staff are out to get me” Mahlangu-Nkabinde has denied that R170 million will be spent to renovate the presidential residence in Pretoria, as she had told Parliament, while the ANC and government spin doctor Jimmy Manyi scrambled to defend the make-over. CARIEN DU PLESSIS reports on another lesson on how not to do PR.
The agencies that public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde pays thousands to do her PR, should have picked up on the story on Wednesday already.
The answers to four written parliamentary questions on renovations worth R400 million to official homes and the office of President Jacob Zuma, as well as the Bryntirion Ministerial Estate in Pretoria, were reported on radio, social media networks and by the DA’s media office by that afternoon.
But it was only when the horrific numbers were splashed in all the newspapers on Thursday, especially the bit about Zuma’s Mahlamba Ndlopfu residence costing R170 million to renovate, that the minister woke up, and issued a statement saying these refurbishments had been cancelled in March already – roundabout the time DA parliamentary leader Athol Trollip submitted the question.
Mahlangu-Nkabinde, jumpy in the wake of rumours that she’ll be out with Zuma’s next Cabinet reshuffle, said it wasn’t clear how the answer to the question, on which ministers usually sign off, got into the hands of Parliament.
Her acting director-general, Mandla Mabuza, frustrated and short of temper by Thursday night, told iMaverick: “We have taken a decision in March that any refurbishment will be done using our in-house capacity, and it will not exceed R7 million.”
The bladdie official who returned the question to the dirty paws of the DA will be outed within 48 hours and severely disciplined, he said. The renovations to the other buildings would also cost significantly less than stated in the answers, but he couldn’t say how much less.
Still, with Zuma currently under siege by a certain political infant, the pro-poor ANC closed ranks and blamed the media’s reporting for the mess. “The media reports try to criminalise the up-keep of public assets as if it is not an inherent responsibility for Public Works,” ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said. ”If there was neglect of public assets both the media and the opposition would make noise and when the government retains value of its assets you still are accused of wrong-doing.”
As for the reported millions, Mthembu said Zuma is worth it: “It is sad that the focus of a section of South Africans is concerned only with the expenditure irrespective of what the asset is used for. “In addition to housing the president of the country, it is an official centre of government that is used for officials functions and hosting of heads of state.” It therefore has to be of a high standard and the security has to be good, whatever the cost, he said. “As the ANC we believe it is in the interest of South Africa that continuous renovation of state assets allows the government to retain their value. We are also happy that the Minister has accounted for all the costs and the procedure was followed and nothing was done to compromise public policy and processes.”
Mthembu must be pretty red-faced about his statements now, seeing that the minister has somehow managed to cut the initial R177 million figure (quoted in March) by a whopping R170 million, to about R7 million.
But there’s more. Government spokesman Jimmy Manyi also felt it fit to rally to Zuma’s defence, defending the renovations, saying in a statement they’re not an “extravagance” and they don’t compromise service delivery. The refurbishment “is being done within our means and at properties – inherited by the democratic dispensation – that are of historical significance and whose upkeep attracts expenses of the kind indicated by the Minister of Public Works.” (Except the minister said she didn’t indicate this kind of expenses.)
“The renovations will enable the President of the Republic, both current and future, to attend to a demanding programme of work in conditions of efficiency, security and the relative comfort that befits the highest office in the country,” he said. “All these facilities will be at the disposal of future administrations and cannot therefore be treated as personal favours.
Then he whips out the dignity ticket Zuma’s spokesman, Mac Maharaj (who didn’t utter a peep on Thursday), is so fond of using, saying the “speculation” was only designed to undermine the “dignity and relentless work ethic of his administration”.
Mahlangu-Nkabinde has been under fire for her role in the dodgy R1.7 billion police leases, found by the Public Protector to have been irregularly awarded. She also featured in a recent report on her Cabinet colleague, cooperative governance and traditional affairs minister Sicelo Shiceka’s lavish hotel stays, to whom she wrote a letter to provide him with “evidence” that his home was being refurbished, but then forgot to backdate it.
Here’s to hoping that all those saboteurs in her department would be gone soon, so that she can look good for a change. DM
- Zuma’s staying power is costing taxpayers millions, on Daily Maverick