/ 5 November 2007

Will govt depts pay to network in Polokwane?

A reported networking lounge at this year’s African National Congress (ANC) national conference could set taxpayers back by up to R40-million, the Democratic Alliance (DA) warned on Monday.

DA national spokesperson Donald Lee was responding to media reports on Monday that big business is to fork out R5-million for a seat on the sidelines of the ANC’s national conference in Polokwane next month.

“The ANC has abused its position as the governing party before to undermine the separation between party and state and, in the process, poured millions of rands of taxpayers’ money into its party coffers,” Lee said in a statement.

He said at the ANC’s 2002 conference in Stellenbosch, 11 of the 29 organisations that paid to exhibit and gain access to the conference “networking lounge” were either national government departments or public entities.

“Given that 30 ‘businesses’ are reported to have paid R5-million each to ‘secure’ their place in the networking lounge at the 2007 ANC conference, representation from national government departments and state-owned enterprises similar to 2002 could set the taxpayer back up to R40-million,” said Lee.

He said such a situation would show that the ANC prioritised its own interests as a party above those of the public. “It would also be completely contrary to Finance Minister Trevor Manuel’s recent instruction to national government departments to make R2,3-billion in “efficiency” savings over the next financial year.”

Lee said the DA will submit parliamentary questions to probe whether any applications for exhibition or networking opportunities have been solicited from departments or entities by any ANC conference organisers or their contractors.

Questions will also relate to whether any applications were made and if so, how much was paid for the opportunity.

Tiyani Rikhotso, ANC spokesperson, on Monday denied claims of any amount being paid to the ANC for the networking lounge at its end-of-year conference.

“We have never spoken about any amount to be paid. It is the businesses’ own decision as to whether they will pay or not,” he told the Mail & Guardian Online. “We have invited businesses to the conference to participate, as the conference is not only about the leadership issue but also about economic issues.

“We have invited businesses across the board to participate and be part of the event. You will find socialists and capitalists, everyone. Neither have we ever spoken about government departments attending. We do not know were they get these claims from.”

He added: “The Democratic Alliance must find work to do and stop interfering with issues that do not concern them.”

On Monday, Business Day reported that 30 businesses have applied for a stall in the ANC’s network lounge, a luxury tent, with alcohol and cigars on offer, and which is mere metres away from the ANC’s main plenary hall.

Project organiser Nic Wolpe said the space is a lobbying environment that is commercialised, the Johannesburg financial daily said. “The ANC leadership can interact with business in an informal alliance — it’s not unusual in Britain or United States politics,” he said.

Wolpe ran the ANC’s network lounge through his company Ukwande at the party’s 2002 national conference in Stellenbosch, but was coy about how much ended up in ANC coffers.

“We did not necessarily pay the ANC directly. We received requests and then made donations. [The ANC] also asked us to pay some of their bills and we responded positively,” he told Business Day.