Herbst: From “Weekend Special” to “Room Service” – Snouts deep in the trough

There’s one thing for sure. If government officials didn’t plunder so much taxpayer wealth on self-indulgence, the country would be in a far better place than on the brink of a recession and ‘junk’ status. But why would a ‘weekend special’ Finance Minister want to give up the luxury of a boutique hotel stay given the level of lavish expenditure his predecessors and running mates enjoyed. As Ed Herbst says, he walks in the shadows of legends. It must be a perk of the job that taxpayers aren’t aware off. Herbst explores government’s snouting at the trough. It’s sickening and unsustainable. – Stuart Lowman

By Ed Herbst*

I see that the best Finance Minister this country has ever had, Des (Weekend Warrior) van Rooyen, has been getting some stature-raising press of late with the news that half a million rand has been spent for his few months’ stay at a boutique hotel – to the manor born as they say.

While we wait for another decade or two for the revised ministerial handbook, I think a timeous warning is called for. It’s true that he was an overnight sensation and a legend in his own lunchtime but when it comes to living snout deep in the trough – at taxpayers’ expense of course – he is, in this regard, a callow stripling, a rank amateur, an appy and he must not get ideas above his station.

South Africa's shortest serving Finance Minister David van Rooyen. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg
South Africa’s shortest serving Finance Minister David van Rooyen. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

He walks in the shadow of legends, not least my personal favourite, the late Roy “Room Service” Padayachie of whom more anon.

Now it must be said, that the Communications Ministry has a certain aura, a je ne sais quoi, when it comes to snouting and a long list of ANC trough legends in that department have consistently striven to raise the bar.

In this regard van Rooyen found himself at a disadvantage. He had, in his brief sojourn as Finance Minister, no role models.

Brief promise

Trevor Manuel showed brief promise when he treated himself to some luxury wheels upon being appointed to the post but then he blew it when he recanted with a heartfelt mea culpa and let the side down by describing his purchase as “ill-advised.”

Let’s, therefore, keep our sojourn on the dark side as brief as possible by joyfully recalling former Communications Minister Dina Pule, the Christian Louboutin fan who cavorted with her lover in some of the world’s plushest hostelries at your expense and mine. They could easily have paid for their own accommodation given that he is alleged, in tenderpreneurial terms, to have “chowed” (with her help) R6m for four days “work” at the ICT Indaba in 2012.

Read also: Zuma sticks to guns on Van Rooyen: Is “more qualified” than Gordhan, Nene

When she was forced into a justifiably insincere apology in parliament by that notorious killjoy, Ben Turok, her go-with-the-flow rentier colleagues, recalling the halcyon Travelgate days, rushed to console her, and rightly so.

Pule will, I am sure, acknowledge that she learnt at the feet of a master snouter, Roy ‘Room Service’ Padayachie who she succeeded as Communications Minister in October 2011.

Suite life

In 2010 the Sunday Times revealed that he had lived a multi-million rand “suite life” for years: “Newly appointed Minister of Communications Roy Padayachie lived in a five-star hotel several days a week for four years at a cost of around R5000 a night – a few hundred metres from his official residence, which he deemed not good enough.

“Padayachie cost taxpayers an estimated R2-million while living it up at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria. That excludes his room service bill.

“He lived in the Sheraton between 2004 and 2008 when he was deputy to late minister of communications Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri.”

Read also: Lindiwe Zulu: Blame business, not Zuma, for the Van Rooyen finmin disaster

Acknowledging his dedicated commitment to living the good life at the expense of the taxpayer, the newspaper gave him the apposite nickname of “Room Service”.

In August 2013 Parliament was told that Padayachie was one of the ANC’s elite who loved to travel – as a passenger of course – in hired luxury cars even though he had an official car. In the process he blew R1.2 million.

As an ANC MP, you are a member of the “Broad Church” and, while depleting the fiscus, you are expected to humbly acknowledge your metaphorical debt to the ‘collective” and its patronage ethos. One of Padayachie’s trough mentors in the Communications portfolio was undoubtedly Siphiwe Nyanda, the “Minister of Luxury” as the Mail & Guardian called him.

As a strong anti-colonialist Nyanda favoured the Mount Nelson hotel, which opened in 1899, at the height of the British colonial era and his favourite restaurant there was the Cape Colony Restaurant which featured cuisine with strong colonial antecedents. Here is a contemporary Mail & Guardian account: “While dining alone during his stay at the five-star Mount Nelson hotel in September last year, Nyanda did not stint on life’s finer pleasures, invoices reveal. The minister’s meal on September 8 last year at the hotel’s acclaimed Cape Colony Restaurant started with oysters, followed by a main course of springbok loin and was washed down with a bottle of mineral water and two glasses of Bordeaux-style red Meerlust Rubicon. The wine cost R330 and the meal for one took the bill to R700, tip included.”

Read also: Floyd Shivambu: Here’s why Zuma fired Nene, deployed backbencher Van Rooyen

Government credit card

This was hardly unusual – in 2006 Paul Mashatile, the current ANC Gauteng chair, acknowledged the following restaurant bills and it goes without saying that these meals were charged to his government credit card:

R480 at Ritrovo restaurant in Pretoria; R17 183 on two visits to Auberge Michel; and R1 900 at Pigalle in January;

R2 641 on two visits to Auberge Michel and R12 297 at Pigalle in March;

R2 030 at The Butcher and Grill in April;

R5 409 on one sitting at Beverley Hills in Durban and R3 720 on a single visit to Auberge Michel in May; and

R99 810 on two visits to Auberge Michel and R85 at Palazzo Mede in June.

Let them eat pap

Living the good life also means that, with a languid wave and a murmured “Let them eat pap – but no vleis” you acknowledge the starving masses as your blue light convoy consisting of pimped-to-the-max blingmobiles races to your next VVVIP meeting.

Nyanda thus insisted on only the best for his blue light convoy, buying not one but two 7-series BMWs and he then pimped them to the max – without spending a cent of his own money.

The Democratic Alliance expressed their but not the ANC’s outrage in a press release:

A reply to a Democratic Alliance (DA) parliamentary question has revealed that the Department of Communications has purchased for the new Minister of Communications two new vehicles (both BMW 750i) to the value to R1 135 000 each, or a combined total of R2 270 000; one for Pretoria and one for Cape Town. More disturbingly, the reply reveals that the department spent R136 000 on extras for one of the vehicles including features like:

  • Rear seat entertainment at a cost of R23 000
  • An innovations package (including things like ambient interior lighting and a rear view camera) at a cost of R35 000; and
  • Gross gloss satin chrome finish at a cost of R5 600
  • The second car also had a series of additional extras, but only to the cost of R12 200, including:
  • A sports leather steering wheel at a cost of R2 300; andA rear view camera at a cost of R5 000

In other words, not only did the department spend R2.2 million on new, top of the range cars, it spent an additional R150 000 on a series of features which can only be described as frivolous and a massive waste of public money.

A certain status

Nyanda would justifiably point out that he only bought two BMW’s compared to the 12 bought by the bibulous Jackson Mthembu, the current ANC chief whip: “As MEC he splashed out on 10 BMW 528s for the Mpumalanga executive at a cost of R2.3m — the original ‘cargate’. His defence was more typical of the ANC today: ‘I am a leader in my community and therefore have a certain status — you can’t therefore be saying I should drive a 1600 vehicle.’”

While van Rooyen still has a long way to go in the snouting stakes, he will be comforted by the thought that when he is “called to higher service”, his exploits will be recalled with suitable pomp and ceremony – as was the case with Room Service Roy.

In the opening sentence of this two-hour, live SABC broadcast, political reporter Vuyo Mvoko justifiably called him a “fallen hero”.

Van Rooyen will also be comforted by the thought that he is highly regarded by President Jacob Zuma who is widely respected.

  • Ed Herbst is a pensioner and former reporter who writes in his own capacity.
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