/ 24 October 2013

Will Parliament make Great Trek?

Will Parliament Make Great Trek?

A raft of cost-cutting measures was at the heart of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan's mid-term budget speech this week.

After several budgets in which he threatened to be more austere, he made solid commitments to trim the waistline and, from December 1, ministers will find themselves with less money to spend on luxuries.

One of the six areas where "wasteful expenditure" had to be reduced would be travel and related costs. The biggest of these costs is travel between the country's capitals. South Africa has had three capitals since the Act of Union in 1910 that united the four former separate colonies – Bloemfontein for the judiciary, Pretoria for the executive and Cape Town for the legislature.

Before 1994, the compromise was for the government to spend six months in the latter two cities – this way travel costs were low and parliamentarians had the best of both climates, much like in British India, where the capital shifted so officials did not suffer the heat.

The responsibilities were fundamentally split after 1994 and, since then, parliamentarians have had to travel constantly. Their departments are in Pretoria, and they have to sit and do the work of a democracy in Cape Town. This means two sets of official cars and two homes or hotels.

In the late 1990s, there was a strong campaign to move shop up north, but this was defeated by a countercampaign by Capetonians to keep Parliament in their city. In 2009, the debate started again after a budget speech. Politicians, including Congress of the People's Graham McIntosh, said the building in Cape Town could be used for the Pan-African Parliament. The main argument against this was that it would be too expensive to build a new Parliament in Pretoria, and that the negative economic impact on Cape Town would be severe. So the move was again defeated.

In 2011, Gordhan tried again, saying that in the six months before the budget, his department had spent R5-million on travel between the two cities. But it was only in this week's budget that he gave a clear indication that real thought had been put into the cost implications of having two capitals.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has been put in charge of discussing what happens next. The first steps are tentative. One plan would be to reduce the size of delegations appearing before parliamentary committees – each department has an attendant committee and ministers bring large delegations to brief these when they are asked to appear.

The "cost implications of the ­current Pretoria-Cape Town arrangements" would then also be reviewed to see where money could be saved.

The ANC side of Parliament cheered the announcement, but the opposition benches sat in stony silence. It has not been missed by commentators that the northern city "belongs" to the ANC, and the one down by the sea is the DA's domain.

After the budget speech, Thaba Mufamadi, head of Parliament's finance committee, said that the ­biggest administrative cost was travel between Parliament in Cape Town and the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

The actual cost of having Parliament in Cape Town is hidden in general travel expenditure and is split between government departments. Each one is responsible for its own minister and delegations. Parliament's annual budget is R1.3-billion, R450-million of which is spent on remuneration for members.

The 82 return tickets each MP gets a year to visit constituents is also covered in this budget.