/ 17 October 2013

Gifts to MPs raise red flags in Parliament

An MP who owns a factory that produces plastics bags cannot sit on an environmental affairs oversight committee – which is considering the thickness of plastic bags – because this would create a conflict of interest for the member.

This is according to a code of conduct for MPs, which sets guidelines on how MPs should conduct themselves. 

However, the code does not mention that a deputy minister of communications cannot receive a gift from a communications company. As is the case with Deputy Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni.

This week, Parliament's joint committee on ethics and members' interests published the register of MPs' interests.

It revealed that Ndabeni, the deputy minister of communications received tickets to the South African Music Awards worth R6 000 and R15 000 hotel accommodation from cellphone company MTN; she also received jazz tickets to the value of R5 000 from companies Vodacom and MultiChoice. MultiChoice also paid for Ndabeni's hotel accommodation valued at R2 000.

ANC MP Eric Kholwane, who chairs the parliamentary oversight committee on communications, declared that he received a cellphone worth about R3 000 from Vodacom.

Conflict of interest
Democratic Alliance (DA) MP, Geordin Hill-Lewis declared that he received a gift basket worth about R300 from the National Empowerment Fund (NEF), an agency which funds developing black businesses.

The NEF accounts to the parliamentary portfolio committee on trade and industry, of which Hill-Lewis is a member.

At R300, Hill-Lewis's gift is way below the R1 500 threshold for declaration. But why accept gifts from an entity that accounts to the same committee he sits in?

Hill-Lewis explained that all members of the committee, who were present at the meeting when the NEF was presenting its annual report, received the gift.

Ben Turok, who chairs the ethics committee, admitted that this was a problem saying the code didn't address the perceived conflict.

Turok said he had not been previously aware that it was happening, but added that Parliament, which is busy with a review of the code, will tighten the section around conflict of interest.

"The section around the conflict of interest will need a considerable refining. We will ask: having declared was it legitimate?" he said.

Transparency should be welcomed
Lawson Naidoo of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution said the transparency in the process should be welcomed. "But it doesn't go all the way."

MPs are required to declare shares and financial interest, remunerated employment outside Parliament, directorships and partnerships, consultancies, sponsorships, gifts and hospitality, benefits, foreign travel paid for by outside sources, ownership of land and property and pensions.

While many MPs hold directorship in a range of business, own a vast number of properties; the gifts segment is always the longest in the register.

According to the code of conduct for MPs, all gifts in excess of R1 500, or gifts from a single source, which cumulatively exceed R1 500 in one calendar year, must be disclosed.

The code of conduct for MPs states that a conflict of interest arises when a member's personal interest conflicts with the public interest.

"For example, assume the portfolio committee on environmental affairs and tourism is considering the thickness of plastic bags and a member of that committee owns a factory that produces plastic bags.

"This situation creates a conflict of interest for the member," it reads.

Champagne glasses from Vivian Reddy
If you are a member of President Jacob Zuma's executive and you have not received champagne and or champagne glasses from Durban businessperson Vivian Reddy, there is something you are not doing right.

A number of Cabinet ministers including Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, his Deputy Nhlanhla Nene and International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane have been recipients of this gift. 

The register also revealed that several also declared gifts, which were part of the invitations to the controversial Gupta wedding, held earlier this year.

iPads and laptops also featured significantly in the register as gifts for MPs.

DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko received regular sponsored nail grooming and hairstyling maintenance.

ANC MP Grace Bothman oddly declared that she received two sums of R3 000 from a cousin.

DA chief whip Watty Watson said MPs aren't allowed to receive gift that could influence their decisions.

Watson said small gifts and hospitality were not considered a problem but when it was excessive gifts, it became a problem.