Speaker’s trip to Liberia ‘no joyride’

Parliament has rebuffed suggestions that National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete’s R471 900 trip to attend the inauguration of Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Monrovia in January was a ”joyride across Africa”.

The Mail & Guardian on Friday made a very serious insinuation about Mbete’s character and integrity, a statement issued by Parliament read.

In its report, ”Speaker joins the jet set”, the M&G said travel agents approached by the newspaper offered business-class commercial tickets to Monrovia starting at R24 500 including taxes (Mbete is entitled to fly business class in terms of parliamentary travel policy). The cheapest available economy-class seat for a stay of less than one month was R10 270.

”The framing of the article is decidedly demeaning. The impression created is that of an excited individual, hopping on a plane and going on a joyride across Africa.

”This is certainly not the case. Parliament takes strong exception to this apparent disrespect towards the speaker,” Parliament’s statement read.

Mbete was invited in her capacity as speaker to the inauguration of Africa’s first woman president in Africa, and her acceptance of the invitation was part of consolidating the ”African agenda”, from Parliament’s viewpoint.

Mbete reported on her impending trip to Monrovia in Liberia, which had already been booked, to Parliament’s executive committee (exco) on January 10.

”Upon being briefed on the flight itinerary, exco deliberated on the matter and recommended to the treasury of Parliament that a flight be chartered for the speaker’s trip to Monrovia.”

The executive committee had considered that there was no direct flight between South Africa and Liberia and it would have taken the speaker nine days for a return trip. It was also important that Parliament was properly represented at the inauguration.

Other considerations included preparations for President Thabo Mbeki’s State of the Nation address being at a critical stage — only three weeks away at the time.

The decision taken was also in line with the ministerial handbook, which covers Parliament’s presiding officers.

The total cost for the trip was R471 900, and Mbete was accompanied by Nomfundo Sonjica, of Parliament’s international relations unit, and two pilots.

”Due to the serious difficulties in securing accommodation in Monrovia, particularly during the inauguration week, both the speaker and her aide were forced to use a substandard hotel.

”There was no accommodation for the pilots, hence they had to fly to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to get accommodation. Swift Flite was the cheapest and Parliament used the company,” the statement read.

Meanwhile, Democratic Alliance chief whip Douglas Gibson said he intends asking parliamentary questions about Mbete’s trip.

”The decision by a body which purports to describe itself as Parliament’s executive committee to agree to a R471 900 trip by … Mbete, appears to have been taken without proper consideration and amounts to a misuse of public funds,” he said.

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