ANC comrades are allegedly being accused of enriching themselves at the expense of their party by block-booking hotel rooms at conferences and renting them out to delegates at inflated prices.
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The ANC's treasurer general, Mathews Phosa, confirmed the issue had been discussed at a national executive committee meeting as part of discussions on preparations for next week's national congress in Mangaung.
The ANC raised this concern in a national working committee report presented by secretary general Gwede Mantashe at a national executive committee meeting in August.
Mantashe said block bookings remained "a major problem, with some members and cadres of the movement being part of this practice that translates into prices being inflated".
Phosa, however, told the Mail & Guardian in an interview this week that for the Mangaung conference he had found a way of curbing the practice.
The party had suffered because of inflated prices when it celebrated its 100th birthday in January, he said.
But this time round those who indulge in this practice might not benefit quite as much as they did before.
Phosa said after realising the party was going to be ripped off again, he snubbed places that seemed to have joined the price-hike scheme and instead secured cheaper accommodation in the form of a boarding school and university hostels. Even with this move, Phosa said he had to act quietly. "We didn't make noise because they would have gone and booked even those ones. We can't move into that flame again. We were burned in January."
Block bookings are done almost every time the ANC converges for its national or provincial conferences and it was no different with the Mangaung gathering, at which there will be an estimated 4 500 delegates.
But the ANC is unhappy that its own members, who normally receive first-hand information about conference dates and venues, were taking advantage of the situation. Phosa described the practice as "a scandal" and "commercially unsound".
"I raised [the matter at a national executive committee meeting] and said: 'Please guys, don't do that'. Now when you want a house at Woodlands Estates [in Bloemfontein] it's R100 000 for four days. It's sad. Those guys are mercenaries. They charge you R100 000 … That costs more than an RDP house."
Although he refused to reveal the names of ANC members implicated in the block-booking practice, Phosa said the party was taking the issue seriously.
However, it had decided not to take any action against those implicated because "their names remained an allegation. Where names were mentioned we couldn't prove it."
A national executive committee member who attended the August meeting said it was almost impossible for the committee to stop its own members from engaging in the practice.
"There's nothing much you can do about that problem. We said at the meeting we are in a free market and there's no rule that says comrades cannot participate in a free market. Scarcity always pushes prices up."
Asked whether the party successfully avoided the unreasonable price increases this time round, Phosa said: "Not completely. I don't think anybody will survive that thing completely."
The general manager for marketing at the Free State Tourism Authority, Khotso Thole, said the association had tried its best to discourage accommodation providers from allowing block bookings.
"We did sensitise them about the event and that they should guard against block bookings. These things do happen when you have such big events, but in Bloemfontein it has happened on a small scale.
"Unfortunately, one doesn't have a legal recourse. There are rules for the hospitality industry, but unfortunately in the Free State people just open up these things [accommodation] but they don't register with us," Thole said.
"We can't even say 'to punish you we're going to cancel your registration'."
Phosa further denied reports this week that the ANC owed at least R7-million for guesthouses booked on behalf of the party by a travel agent.
"We have no such contracts. Some fly-by-night guys must be using the ANC name. Where we have a hotel it's one – the Protea Hotel – and we've paid in full," Phosa said.
"Where we have a service provider booking for us we've paid at least 60% already."
Conference delegates are scheduled to start arriving in Bloemfontein on Friday in preparation for the opening of the event on Sunday.