South Africa

Analysis: Saving public money the most efficient, if somewhat drastic, way

By J Brooks Spector 28 October 2013

While Minister Gordhan's initiative to save a big chunk of money wasted by the government's travelling splurge is noteworthy, there are even more ways to save the much-needed funds. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

After the American Revolution had been won in 1781 on the battlefield (and then by peace treaty in 1783), the new government began its uncertain existence under the Articles of Confederation. This union was a weak arrangement that made very little provision for most of the things we take for granted as the essential processes of government these days.

Not least, the new government was dependent on the voluntary contributions for its operating revenue by some very jealous former colonies. Consequently, the new government led such a threadbare existence it usually couldn’t pay its bills – including its small army’s salaries, along with the promised bonuses to soldiers who had actually fought for and won the country’s independence.

This remnant army pursued the Congress (there was, as yet, no president in the country’s constitutional arrangements) across the landscape of the Mid-Atlantic states. The threat of the army suddenly showing up in person to demand their back pay was sufficient encouragement to send the Congress fleeing from town to town to stay a couple of towns ahead of those ill-clothed, hungry, and increasingly impatient troops.

By the time the Constitution came into force in 1789, the then-small city of New York was selected as the nation’s first capital. However, as part of the agreement to adopt the new constitutional arrangement, there were agreements to create an entirely new capital (with its public buildings constructed in the manner of romantic Roman and Greek models) out of as-yet unsettled woodlands and a few small farms and villages in a district carved from land in Maryland and Virginia. The new capital fronted on the Potomac River and became Washington, DC.

In addition, mindful of a peripatetic Congress trying to stay two wagon coach stops ahead of any mobs, the new government guaranteed to pay all of the Revolutionary War debts of the Continental Congress.

Like America, establishing a new capital can be seen as an affirmative act, an assertion of an optimistic future and some new, bold beginnings for a nation. Brazil, with its designed-all-in-one-piece new city in the country’s interior, Brasilia, comes to mind in this regard.

But historically, too, there is also a tradition of establishing replacement capitals as a new order takes charge in a nation, replacing the sins and failures of an older order. Over nearly a thousand-year span, Japan’s leadership elites moved their nation’s capital from the small city of Nara to Kyoto, then to Kamakura, and then back to Kyoto, and then finally to Tokyo as a key element of the 1867 Meiji Restoration. China’s capitals have been even more numerous – and this would count only those times when it was a single united empire.

Even within just the twentieth century, China’s capital has shifted from Beijing to Nanking to Chungking – and then back to Beijing – in response to revolutions, civil war and foreign invasion. Russia’s capital moved from St Petersburg to Moscow in 1918 (after being in Moscow until St Petersburg was constructed as the empire’s new capital in the early 18th century). And Berlin became Germany’s capital in 1870, only because unification came through the dominance of Prussia and its victory against France in battle. Earlier, in the revolutionary year of 1848, the preferred choice of German democrats and bourgeois liberals in all of the region’s many small states had been to make Frankfurt, much closer to the centres of German culture and its growing economic vitality, as the country’s capital. European history would have been rather different if that had happened.

And here in South Africa, Cape Town was the British colonial capital for its domains, from its conquest from the Dutch, until the Treaty of Vereeniging. The arrangements after the South African War divided up governmental functions for the new, expanded Union of South Africa. This kept the national parliament in Cape Town (the original Dutch, then British colonial centre of power), but the executive function went to Pretoria at the newly constructed Union Buildings, and the nation’s final appeals court was situated in Bloemfontein. (Now, of course, from 1994 onward, a new Constitutional Court holds forth in Johannesburg as well.)

Of course South Africa is not the only nation in the world that has sliced up its governmental functions and spread them over more than one city. Various versions of this include the governmental arrangements in Bolivia, Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Montenegro and Georgia; but it is certainly the only nation that has divided these responsibilities and put them into three (or four) cities.

In a less hurried age before the new non-racial constitution, the ritual of packing up senior administrative offices in Pretoria for the trek to Cape Town for the opening of parliament early in the year (returning to Pretoria later in the year) sent the government’s senior officials off to coast in the luxuriously appointed Blue Train for that ceremonial trip for their multi-month time in Cape Town. Foreign ambassadors and their senior staff members followed South as well – to attempt to keep tabs on what the South African government was doing – or planning to do with its increasingly restive black majority. The foreign representatives also opened up their second residences in Cape Town, mirroring the behaviour of the government’s senior officials. It obviously was a costly exercise for everyone, but very few ever really complained about a chance to spend nearly half their year in Cape Town – and not during the city’s less salubrious winter season.

But in the post-1994 era, that stately Cape Town-Pretoria sojourn has turned into an unending shuttle between the two cities for growing numbers of officials. Cabinet and other senior-level officials come to Cape Town and check into top-of-the-line hotels for the parties – and they usually bring a cadre of their hangers-on as well.

Who can really turn down a paid vacation to Cape Town and a break from the tedium of Pretoria’s bureaucratic life, after all? They come for consultations with party officials and parliamentarians, as well as to feed a stream of testimony before the many standing portfolio and special parliamentary committees. But this traffic flow comes at a greater and greater cost as the volume of visits always seems to rise and the number of people making such trips grows apace.

In his recent mid term budget speech, in addition to promising to end the appalling bling splurge on the part of cabinet officials in treating themselves to astonishingly expensive personal cars at taxpayer expense, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has announced that the number of officials travelling to Cape Town on such government business should now be limited, that plans are now underway to restrict the size of delegations appearing before parliamentary committees, that those ubiquitous (and often misused) government credit cards would be recalled, and that splurging on liquor and lavish spreads at government events would be reeled back.

All of that would seem rather unexceptional in the face of popular growing demands to rein in government expenses. Beyond the spending curbs noted above, Gordhan also used his speech to say that the cost implications of having two centres of government, one in Pretoria and one in Cape Town, will now be revisited as well. Whoa. This seems like we’re crossing that historic Rubicon, yet again, by proposing to talk about this topic.

But why just propose a study commission that would itself have to travel back and forth to Cape Town to gather ideas and evidence – together with its staffers and miscellaneous hangers-on – in considering whether the gravy train to and from Cape Town should come under a rather sharper examination with the Treasury’s fiscal microscope? Why not take the opportunity to make the jump into the 21st century, for real, instead?

High definition video conferencing (HDVC) is increasingly a way of life for busy executives in the business world where time and the cost of carrying out the management of international operations are increasingly being measured with a great care and greater and greater scrutiny. With some governments as well, HDVC – especially if carried out through encrypted software [Editor: Angela Merkel: are you noting this?] – increasingly is also becoming the way to carry out routine consultations with offices across the country or around the world. “Ah ha”, we can hear you say, “HDVC conversations aren’t the same as face-to-face, right in the room. Face-to-face is the way to go to develop trust.”

But is a routine bit of testimony or the briefing of a parliamentary portfolio committee on some part of the budget really something that needs that much touchy-feely stuff and a whole busload of aides and assistants? Isn’t it more usually just an opportunity to provide more detailed information on some aspect of a budget, the department’s plans and proposals; to answer the occasional pointed question from an unsympathetic opposition party MP; and to generate some favourable media attention for the government and the officials giving the testimony?

Yes, setting up some state-of-the-art, purpose-designed and built HDVC capabilities in Cape Town and Pretoria would clearly cost some money. But, this writer is prepared to bet an excellent dinner in one of Cape Town’s finest restaurants that the cost of doing this for dozens of parliamentary meetings with government officials would be much lower than just one year’s expenditure of the flood of travellers occupying the first few rows of the planes plying the Johannesburg-Cape Town route, staying in those six star hotels and scarfing down all those lovely meals some of Cape Town’s finest eateries have on offer.

It probably wouldn’t even need much more personnel staffing than who are already on the parliamentary payroll. It seems that Parliament already videos most such meetings, and having a purpose-built room or rooms for such events would probably even cut down the set-up costs for video support in various rooms around the parliamentary precinct. And yes, we could still keep the opening of parliament and the initial budget speech as an all-hands-on event – complete with those fancy hats and the band.

Setting up such a process might well be a bit awkward for some of the more technologically retrograde, but it would assuredly become easier and easier once users get used to such a process. And the more lifelike the images the system produces for such meetings, the less likely people would feel distanced from their conversations. There is an important side benefit as well. As anybody who has ever used the Internet in this country can attest, South Africa remains held back by the country’s relative lack of bandwidth and low connection speeds for most purposes – as well as the cost of the connections that do exist.

The need to get this right for parliament’s business could finally be the push needed to get the country’s broadband universe right for everybody else – both for private business and individual needs, along with government’s purposes in entering the wired world wholeheartedly. This could make the rapid, effective build-up of the country’s broadband landscape – and everybody in the government would see it as something they also want and need for their own particular purposes and interests, in addition to it being in the national interest.

Of course there is another alternative. We could just move the whole upper strata of the government to Cape Town permanently and be done with the flying. Period. Instead of the likely howls of protest from Cape Town’s influential hospitality industry that could come from the ending of the governmental gravy train to Cape Town’s costly and kilojoule-ridden pleasures, think of the thunderous support from Cape Town’s political and commercial elites of that second alternative.

Capetonians would be delighted to be in an even better position to seduce government officials into a closer appreciation of the city’s relative successes – and they could do that every day; morning, noon and night. At the same time, the ANC would likely think it has been given a wonderful opportunity to attack the Western Cape’s DA government up close and personal, on a daily basis. In politics there sometimes are win-win solutions to things! Of course that would still require more HDVC between the mandarins of government in Cape Town with their minions in Pretoria – so, either way the government would enter the 21st century with a vengeance.

But whichever way things go, it is surely time to move beyond the current expensive, time-consuming, wasteful arrangements. Surely there is no longer a need to protect a parliamentary style of governmental business that evolved out of conducting the country’s public business like it was an afternoon meeting of the management committee of an old-style, tradition-bound gentlemen’s club. DM

Photo: Cape Town, South Africa, 14 February 2013. President Jacob Zuma delivered his fourth state of the nation address in Cape Town on Wednesday. Parliamentarians came out in style and reveled in the chance to talk fashion on the red carpet. Photo Greg Nicolson.

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