Business Maverick


Would you pay R1.2m to sit next to the President at a gala dinner?

Would you pay R1.2m to sit next to the President at a gala dinner?
An ANC Gala Dinner at the Ekurhuleni convention centre on 13 December 2017 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

The prices have just been announced for the annual business haircut associated with the ANC’s December elective conference.

How much would you pay to sit at President Cyril Ramaphosa’s table at a gala dinner? What would you expect as, you know, a quid pro quo? What would you ask him?

And how exactly would you explain these trifling expenses to your shareholders?

The prices have just been announced for the annual business haircut associated with the ANC’s December elective conference. The website TicketPro is now advertising Gala Dinner Packages hosted by the Progressive Business Forum for the big bash in advance of the conference, which will be held at Nasrec in Johannesburg.

This is a traditional dinner with business people which has been hosted many times before — but the prices have changed rather dramatically. It will now cost you R1.2-million for the Titanium Package.

What you get for that is six seats at the main table, you can nominate seven guests at a complimentary table, and you get to attend the five business breakfasts during the conference.

You also get — and now you will really need to curb your enthusiasm — a 3 square metre exhibition stand with a table and two chairs. But wait, there’s more. You also get — hold on to your hat — a plug point. Bonus! I am not making this up.

There is also a Platinum Package (R900,000 per table with no promises about the ANC official in attendance), and three Gold Packages (R760,000 gets your elbow rubbing with three of the top six in attendance). All of these tickets, you will be relieved to hear, come with exhibition stands and plug points. Of course, whether electricity actually flows to the plug points will be dependent on other variables.

What does a ticket buy?

So now you have paid your R1.2-million. Would that guarantee the opportunity to bend the President’s ear about your most recent tender? Could you make helpful suggestions about appointments? Could you suggest some policy positions that might boost your business?

Turns out, not so much. I have a friend who snuck into one of these dinners and she tells me that the atmosphere was exactly the kind of clubby, congratulatory, back-scratching exercise that these events often are, complete with the rubber chicken dinner. The interesting thing is that if you thought paying your 1.2-bar was the sum total of your commitment, you would be very much mistaken. There were lots of waiters hanging around offering copious quantities of Johnnie Walker (of any colour really), all for sale. She had a Johnnie Walker Platinum. It was, you know, fine.

Assuming all the tables are sold, this would raise a bit more than R4-million for the ANC’s running of the conference, which, by the way, is not nearly enough to cover the conference expenses, and that is even before the vote-buying exercises begin. The President’s election campaign cost R440-million the last time; one hopes this one will cost a bit less. But a mere gala dinner or two really doesn’t cut it. It’s not cheap being a politician in South Africa.

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What interests me is how business approaches its relationship with the ANC these days. Ramaphosa is probably the most knowledgeable, and if not business-friendly then at least business-familiar, ANC president that we have had in the democratic era. But oddly, or perhaps not, the equivalent of this gala dinner was poorly attended at the ANC’s recent policy conference.

I get the sense there is a deep irony here. Despite having a President who may not be a die-hard fan of business, but is at least broadly conscious of the role business plays, business in SA is being much more cautious about its relationship with the ANC these days, even as it is being asked to shoulder more of the responsibilities of the state. 

The regular acknowledgements that we used to see in annual reports about donations made to the ANC have almost totally dried up. I’m not sure if that is because they have actually dried up, they are not being reported, or because the reputational risk of being seen as a tenderpreneur looking for a shortcut to vast riches is now more palpable.

What we do know is that these events were enormously well supported during the Zuma years, which ought in itself to have raised eyebrows. In 2012, for example, guests at the President’s table were paying R500,000 each, as opposed to the R200,000 being paid this year. Clearly, there was a time when getting the presidential nod was potentially more lucrative than it is now. I think this is actually a good sign.

Parastatal parade

The other characteristic of these dinners is how many parastatals bought and still buy tickets. During the days when Transnet and Eskom were producing profits hand over fist, you could argue that it would make business sense for parastatals to protect their monopolies by being cosy with the government. But given that most parastatals are now being supported with taxpayer rands, I think this quasi-donation scheme ought to elicit more frowny-faced emojis. Of course, for that very reason, staying on the good side of the ANC is all the more important. One wouldn’t want the taxpayer-funded bailouts to dry up.

So if you did get to sit with the President at dinner, what would you ask? You know he is not going to reveal any party secrets, or any new policy directions, or even why we continue to abstain from sanctioning a war that is fuelling so much inflation here.

Anyway, it would be kinda rude to ask any gritty money questions while everyone is being overly friendly and slapping each other on the back. It’s just not done. Having interviewed Ramaphosa at various points in my career, I can tell you he is an extremely acute, cautious interviewee and he will pour honey in your ear until you can’t take it any more.

Perhaps these expensive tables are not about what you say to the President, but rather just being seen by all the other tables as being a big supporter. And then there are the plug points to consider. DM/BM

Alternatively, you could come to The Gathering to hear and mingle with the change makers in SA from as little as R75.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    The answer to that question is NO! I would expect that President to rather pay me the R1.2m as a refund for all the money he and his party have stolen from me and other taxpayers!

  • Craig A says:

    How many kids could be fed or educated with that money? Let them eat cake!

    Do the ANC ever see what is going on around them? It is as if they live in another country. It’s too sad to see so much money wasted when we have such poverty in our beautiful country.

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