South Africa

Passing the Buck, Mbete-style: Suppliers for Post-SONA Speaker’s Ball are still unpaid, still afraid

By Marianne Merten 13 March 2017

The bills for National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete’s “The Speaker’s Ball 2017” remain unpaid more than a month after the post-State of the Nation Address (SONA) event. Four service providers for the function, the luxury Cape Town hotel that was the venue and a subcontracted events company contacted by Daily Maverick on Monday, all confirmed they are still waiting for the money. But with the exception of the two smallest Cape hinterland based companies, no one wanted their name in the media. Apparently raising a public stink over not being paid, particularly for an event involving government people, is not good for business in the small and not-so-small business world of fear and loathing. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

The Mafia has omertà, and apparently companies involved in the events business also have a code of silence: loads of PR on the ritz and glam when all goes well, but silence when things go south. To wit, the “Speaker’s Ball” hosted by National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, who is also ANC national chairperson, following SONA 2017 on February 9.

Both the ANC and Parliament last month publicly distanced themselves from the event. “Comrade Mbete intends on having this dinner as an annual meeting and networking opportunity for those close to her,” said an ANC statement issued on February 8, with a quote from Mbete: “This dinner is not hosted nor funded by neither (sic) the African National Congress nor Parliament. It is a private dinner.”

At a media briefing just before SONA 2017, Mbete reiterated, “The Speaker’s Ball” was a “private” event – “it does not utilise a single cent from Parliament” – but she did not respond to questions as to whether it was funded by sponsors or from her own pockets.

The bash went ahead. By Monday, the bills were still outstanding.

The Johannesburg-based events organiser, who signed up “the client” and then subcontracted the function to another Johannesburg-based company, which in turn contracted the service providers and venue, declined to be drawn on the matter. “I really prefer not to comment on this. We still have to try to navigate this carefully,” said that person, adding that it was “preferred” that the business name not be associated with “unfavourable” matters. “I really can’t make any kind of comment.”

There was a similar reaction from the subcontracted events company, which spoke to Daily Maverick but did not want to put name to comment because, again, it would be “bad for business”. Yes, the company had still not been paid. Yes, lawyer’s letters have been sent to the person who contracted them. But then: “I’d rather not have my company name in the public domain.”

The luxury Cape Town hotel confirmed it had received the required deposit, but nothing since, and also requested not to be named.

One service provider known on the Cape Town events scene simply said: “I’m not allowed to divulge anything without the client’s consent.” When given names, the person said: “I need to check the ledger.”

Another service provider, also active on the Cape Town events scene, talked to Daily Maverick, and was prepared to comment publicly as long as no names were mentioned. “We can confirm we have not been paid. We have been told we’ll be paid this week,” that company said. “We were on site and we were told the deposit had been paid. It was a complete lie… Luckily we are a big company. We can absorb the cost.”

Not so one of the smaller service providers that’s now R210,000 out of pocket, a shortfall currently tied over through a personal bank overdraft. Debt-free for the past two or so years, the owner of this company, with 10 women employees, said he’s settled with everyone except two companies that agreed to accept repayment terms. “I’ve taken a huge knock. I can promise it will take a year to recover if I don’t get the money,” the person said: “It looked all so legit.”

The person at another small-scale service provider involved in the event said various follow-up contact with the contracting company in Johannesburg resulted in one message: “They say have not been paid.” That means this company is left without money. “Fortunately it’s season.”

All companies had contracts with the Johannesburg events company contracted by the events organiser who signed up the client and who, according to at least two service providers, appeared to be closely politically connected. Daily Maverick has seen several invoices provided around the February 9, 2017 Speaker’s Ball. At least some service providers, it emerged during Monday’s conversations, dropped their requirements for a deposit, apparently because of an impression that it was a government event, or at least one involving “government people”, as one put it.

ANC national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa on Monday declined to comment, saying it had been “a private function and nothing to do with the ANC”. Parliament did not respond when asked whether the institution had a comment on the non-payment of service providers.

DA chief whip John Steenhuisen on Sunday said the party would report this matter of non-payment to Parliament’s Joint Committee on Ethics and Members’ Interests: “We contend that Mbete has brought the Office of the Speaker into disrepute.”

It is especially concerning that the event was organised and held in the name of the Speaker, who is indeed the representative of Parliament. Tarnishing the name of the Speaker is no different to tarnishing the institution itself,” added Steenhuisen.

While the invitation did not feature the logo of Parliament, it displayed Mbete’s photograph amid a golden sparkle effect and read: “The Speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa, Honourable Baleka Mbete, requests the pleasure of your company at The Speaker’s Ball 2017.” The RSVP is to an ANC e-mail address which Daily Maverick last month was told is that of Mbete’s PA at Luthuli House.

Hosted for the first time in 2016, the event comes amid National Treasury’s long-standing cost-cutting measures. For this reason Parliament for three years now has not hosted its traditional post-SONA banquet, and the Presidency has also cut out the traditional SONA-linked cocktail function.

Small business development is a key policy for job creation and boosting economic growth by the ANC-led government. Billions of rand are spent on a swathe of programmes to support entrepreneurs.

With regards to “The Speaker’s Ball 2017”, the music has long stopped and the bar has run dry. The tab still has to be paid as the fear and loathing among the companies continues – and those in power seem to get away with anything. DM


"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine