/ 19 May 2009

Transport minister returns ‘thank you’ Merc

S'bu Ndebele on Tuesday returned the luxury Mercedes he had received as a gift, though President Jacob Zuma said he was entitled to keep it.

Transport Minister S’bu Ndebele on Tuesday decided to return the top-of-the-range Mercedes Benz he received as a gift, though President Jacob Zuma said he was entitled to keep it.

”I have decided to voluntarily return the Mercedes Benz and two head of cattle that I received at a function in Pietermaritzburg last Saturday,” he told a packed press conference in Cape Town.

Ndebele said Zuma and the African National Congress (ANC) leadership had advised him that he may keep the car, which is worth more than R1-million, provided he declare it in the annual register of members’ interests at Cabinet and Parliament level.

He also insisted the lavish gift did not create a conflict of interest.

Ndebele received calls earlier on Tuesday to return the car, in what for many became a test of Zuma’s promises to run a clean government.

Zuma vowed to stamp out corruption during his election campaign and opposition parties also focused heavily on public accountability.

Corruption is a worry for South Africans and businesses alike on a continent where it has often held back growth. In the decade to 2008, South Africa slipped from 32 to 54 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Zuma’s opponents say his innocence is still in doubt because the charges against him were dropped after a judge ruled there had been political meddling in the case — and not because he was found not guilty.

But, though Zuma advised Ndebele that he could keep the car, the former KwaZulu-Natal premier and transport minister said he did not want the media outcry to distract him as he settled into his new portfolio, or for the incident to sully his reputation.

”I’ve had 15 fairly good years in government and the only thing I really have is my good name,” he said.

Ndebele came under severe media scrutiny after press reports revealed that he was given the Mercedes, along with fuel vouchers and two head of cattle, by businessmen who had benefited from KwaZulu-Natal’s Vukuzakhe government programme to help emerging contractors.

The gesture was reportedly meant as thanks for Ndebele’s role in creating a platform for small contractors in the province.

Ndebele confirmed that in the past 10 years, government had allocated close to R10-billion in contracts to contractors associated with the programme.

Asked whether he had been tempted to keep the vehicle, Ndebele replied that he had no need for it as the generous car allowance for Cabinet ministers would enable him to acquire a vehicle to the same value.

”The DG [director general] tells me that we have a very good car scheme. I can get a car to the value of more than R1-million and I think for deputy ministers it is R850 000,” he said.

The ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) on Tuesday lauded Ndebele’s decision to return the luxury gift.

”Ndebele’s decision to return the gifts provides a lead to other public representatives who may find themselves in a similar situation,” said the ANC in a statement on Tuesday.

”It is important to cultivate an environment in which public representatives do not expect any special treatment for work well done.”

The party said government rules about receiving gifts were there to ensure transparency and guard against the abuse of office.

”The ANC advised Ndebele to follow these rules. It also advised him to exercise personal judgement on the matter.”

”It was the right thing to do”, Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven said.

Craven said in a statement Cosatu hoped this decision would set a precedent, and that all public representatives would from now on refuse to accept any such gifts from commercial companies, and thus remove any suspicion that they might have a conflict of interest in the allocation of tenders or any other state business.

”The decision gives us confidence that our new government led by President Jacob Zuma is determined to take a hard line against anyone in government, the public service and parastatal institutions who uses their position to enrich themselves,” Craven said.

DA parliamentary leader Atholl Trollip welcomed the decision, but was disappointed with Zuma.

”President Zuma has missed an opportunity to set the correct tone for his administration by ensuring that special favours for a well-connected governing elite are not tolerated.

”Clearly the gifts received by Minister Ndebele were problematic, and it is disappointing that it was left to the Minister to decide whether or not to hand back the gifts,” Trollip said.

The DA and Cosatu had earlier urged Ndebele to return the car to avoid a perception of conflict of interest.

Stuart Farrow, a member of Parliament and the DA’s shadow minister of transport, said the affair over the Mercedes was an important test.

”I think the first thing to do is return it,” he told Reuters earlier on Tuesday. ”President Zuma has said, in terms of his campaign, that he would form a clean administration.”

Cosatu called upon ”President Zuma to set a precedent by refusing to sanction the gift to Comrade Ndebele and making it clear that his government strictly enforce the rules on gifts and not allow any of its members to accept donations which will compromise their independence”. — Sapa, Reuters