/ 12 November 2010

Minister’s bunch of trouble

Minister's Bunch Of Trouble

An internal audit report has spotlighted thousands of rands of irregular expenditure on cut flowers by high-living Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Sicelo Shiceka — and well-placed insiders say they were requested for his home by his spouse.

Also singled out in the report’s long list of irregular payments are interior decorations for Shiceka’s ministerial home in Waterkloof, Pretoria, which the Mail and Guardian was told included oil paintings, three plasma television sets and kitchen utensils.

The report says that the flowers cost the state just over R15 500 while decorations to the house set it back close to R125 000.

Government regulations limit expenditure on furnishing for state-owned houses to the provision and maintenance of ordinary household furniture. The state does not supply linen, blankets, kitchen utensils, television sets, video recorders, decoders, wall decorations or ornaments.

Said a senior employee who used to work closely with the minister: “Yes, he was supposed to buy those things himself, but he refused. When the department’s people went to the house to tag them he chased them out.” Shiceka’s spokesperson hotly denied this.

The M&G was told that the minister’s latest demand is for the installation of plasma television screens on every floor of his head office, despite resistance from some senior managers who object that such expenditure is clearly irregular.

The screens would only show internal activities, with those of the minister dominating the feed.

Internal auditors also questioned the wisdom of spending R16 900 on recording the minister’s briefing session at the ministry in July last year.

Ministerial employees said a videographer appointed by the ministry followed Shiceka wherever he was on duty.

The M&G has learned independently from two officials who facilitated the transactions that Shiceka bought additional household staff for the ministerial home in defiance of the ministerial handbook.

A senior departmental official said Shiceka’s taste for the finer things in life was shocking. “I have been in government since 1994, but in all my experience of different ministers, I have never seen anything like this.”

Shiceka’s spokesperson Vuyelwa Vika denied any impropriety, saying no flowers were delivered to the minister’s home or to his spouse. “In terms of the department’s policy, flowers would be ordered for the ministry reception area, the lounge where people coming for meetings with the minister or the deputy minister wait for their appointments [and] offices of the minister and deputy minister,” Vika said.

She did not explain why the department’s own auditors would query such purchases.

Vika added that the department had investigated the ordering of the flowers. Where it was found that proper supply chain management processes were not adhered to, appropriate processes of disciplinary action were instituted.

Vika branded the allegation that Shiceka had evicted departmental staff from his home as “malicious, devoid of all truth and undermining of the person of the minister”.

Any matter relating to ministerial homes was the responsibility of the public works department, she said. “The insinuation contained is alarming and of great concern, begging the question as to the purpose of wanting to portray the minister in this light.”

On Shiceka’s plan to install plasma TV sets throughout the ministry, she said: “The communication and marketing division has recently carried out an investigation on the feasibility of installing plasma screens in the department as part of the broader internal communication strategy. No final decision has been taken at this stage.”

Senior managers in the department told the M&G that the decision had been made and the next step is installation.

Vika justified the use of a video­grapher by saying that it served “the needs of the department and its programmes including the work of the leadership”. It is not irregular for the department to employ a videographer, but the cameraperson would be expected to work with all leaders of the concerned department instead of concentrating on the minister.

Several departmental staff members said that Shiceka, who apparently calls himself “makhulu baas”, boasts that he is the third most powerful person in government — after President Jacob Zuma and his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe — because he is in charge of all South Africa’s 283 municipalities.

Shiceka is also accused of frequently being absent from work since July, when his whereabouts were discussed in hushed tones in government. He finally reappeared on crutches on July 28 at a media briefing addressed by Zuma at the Union Buildings.

“The department is leaderless,” said a senior manager, who asked to remain anonymous. “He just issues instructions.”

Vika said that there was nothing strange about Shiceka’s absence, as he was “not an office-bound employee of the state”.

“He comes to the office as his programme [or] diary requires him to. More often than not, the minister is where his programme for the day requires him to be — which includes interacting with key stakeholders like communities, civil society structures, his Cabinet colleagues, the ruling party and Parliament.”

However, an MP told the M&G that Shiceka was seen in Parliament after a long absence when Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivered the medium-term budget statement last month. He had earlier appeared before the portfolio committee on cooperative governance and traditional affairs and this week he was in Parliament again and appeared in a television interview the following day.

Other irregular expenses listed by the auditors include:

  • Venue hire for R178 113 in September last year. Vika said the venue was for a community engagement programme in Moutse, Limpopo, as part of the consultations on boundary demarcation;
  • About R375 000 on President Jacob Zuma’s conversation with mayors in October last year. Vika’s explanation: “This was a departmental event at which the president was invited to address local government leadership — mayors and municipal managers. It’s a standard operating procedure of government and other organisations to pay for their events which fall within their programmes. The department paid for all the event management and logistics”;
  • About R114 000 for hired cars used by the minister’s protectors and messengers in May and June last year;
  • Smartcase compact laptop organiser bags, purchased for R26 040 in June last year; and
  • Gifts for his Brazilian counterparts worth R15 793 in October and November last year

Vika tried to discourage the M&G from using information in the audit document, saying it had to be signed off by director general Elroy Africa, as a true reflection.

“Until the accounting officer of the department does the necessary verification and signs it off as a true reflection of the situation, the information is not yet credible or official. In this format it is raw data that is still unchecked and unverified by the director general,” she said.

A government employee said that while the audit unit reports directly to the director general, its reports are distributed to a number of stakeholders, including the auditor general. For that reason, the director general did not need to approve them.

Internal auditors are also required to be independent in monitoring the financial management of ministries and government departments.

The auditor general also found irregular expenditure of R7,5-million in both the ministry and the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, as recorded in the department’s annual report.