The government has splashed out at least R500 000 on a luxury apartment for the controversial co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister, Des van Rooyen, and his family at a five-star boutique hotel in Pretoria.
This follows Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s warning in this year’s budget speech that the government planned to introduce stringent cost-cutting in all departments to allow additional spending on higher education and other national priorities. The measures would include national travel and accommodation.
The hotel, 131 on Herbert Baker, has a 180-degree view of Pretoria and borders on a nature reserve in the wealthy suburb of Groenkloof. “Enjoy spectacular sunsets over the city from the exclusive Ristorante Grissini and extravagant high teas are served on the front lawn daily,” its website gushes.
The public works department spokesperson, Thami Mchunu, confirmed that the Van Rooyen family has been booked into the hotel on a month-to-month basis since January 1 this year, but he would not reveal how much the accommodation has cost to date or the number of Van Rooyen’s children. As far as amaBhungane could establish, the minister and his family are staying in one of two family apartments.
The receptionist said only one of these is occupied, at a daily tariff of R4 000, including breakfast. The total outlay on the apartment from January 1 to end-May this year would amount to about R600 000. It is not known whether Van Rooyen and his family make use of other hotel services, such as lunch, dinner and laundry, at state expense. If so, it could add tens or hundreds of thousands to the bill.
Mchunu defended the decision to house Van Rooyen at the hotel, saying that the department did not have a state-owned residence for him when he was appointed minister. He said Van Rooyen’s official residence had now been refurbished and furnished, but he would not say how much longer the minister would stay at the hotel.
He did not respond to amaBhungane’s questions about why it has taken six months to find a house and who occupied the residence of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, which he vacated after he was fired in December last year. Van Rooyen replaced Nene as finance minister, but was himself replaced by Gordhan four days later.
The co-operative governance spokesperson, Legadima Leso, also refused to give the number of Van Rooyen’s children, citing “security reasons”. AmaBhungane asked the treasury’s spokesperson, Phumza Macanda, whether the cost-cutting policy announced by Gordhan in his budget speech had been drawn up and implemented and, if so, for a copy of the policy document. Macanda did not respond.
Mchunu said the public works department was well aware of the government’s cost-cutting measures and was in full agreement with them. The hotel’s website makes no reference to family apartments, but the receptionist told amaBhungane that the two such facilities had two bedrooms each. She said one of them had been occupied “for quite a while” and was booked until the end of July.
All the other accommodation listed on the website sleeps two, including nine “beautifully appointed” en-suite rooms and a “magnificent” presidential suite. Room perks listed on the website include “a minibar with premium international brands, plasma TV, satellite television, free wireless broadband internet access and a DVD player”.
It is not known whether the minister enjoys a personalised butler service, which is available on request. Arriving at the hotel, amaBhungane’s reporter passed through a small security gate and was ushered into a reception area decorated with antique furniture. The décor is simple yet classy, in earthy tones and cream, with a touch of peach. The reception hall is quiet, with just a receptionist, the hotel manager and a waiter.
Mchunu said Van Rooyen’s stay was in line with the ministerial handbook, which stated: “If, owing to exceptional circumstances, a state-owned residence is not available for members upon assumption of duty of office, expenses in connection with alternative accommodation may be debited to the state until an official residence becomes available.”
He added that the hotel was chosen according “to the most appropriate norms in line with approved financial prescripts”. The department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs was footing the bill and the cost would be recovered from public works. Van Rooyen is seen as being close to the Gupta family and an ally of President Jacob Zuma. His hotel bill is unlikely to endear him to Gordhan and may heighten tensions between the two men.
Van Rooyen was a relatively low-key individual in Parliament and in the ANC until he came under the spotlight in December when Zuma shuffled finance ministers. Van Rooyen has since been embroiled in another controversy. Media reports, which he has since denied, claimed last month that the minister went to Dubai two weeks after his appointment, allegedly to meet members of the Gupta family.
The minister said the trip was a private visit and planned long before he became a minister. Van Rooyen is not the first minister to have been put up in expensive private hotels at great cost to the taxpayer. Former communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda was estimated to have spent R515 000 on luxury accommodation at the Mount Nelson Hotel and the 12 Apostles Hotel and Spa in Cape Town between April 2009 and March 2010.
It was also reported that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and his deputy, Hlengiwe Mkhize, spent R571 883 on local and international hotels during the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 financial years.