A poor DA statement that misrepresents the facts

by The Editor

InsidePoliticsFEATURE: The DA today released a statement severely criticising the Minister of Sport for the amount to be spent on the 2013 South African Sports Awards ceremony. But, while the total has increased, the amount of public money allocated has actually decreased. The DA seems to have ignored this fact, however, and slammed the Minister regardless. It’s a good example of bad news triumphing over good and a disingenuous position as a result.

A poor DA statement that misrepresents the facts

By: Gareth van Onselen

16 May 2013

The DA today released the following statement, based on this reply to a parliamentary question, from the Minister of Sport and Recreation.

The question was no doubt prompted by last year’s outrage, when it was revealed the Annual South African Sports Awards ceremony would cost some R45 million. That was a difficult pill to swallow, a grossly excessive amount made to appear all the more exorbitant by the fact that so many smaller sporting codes were struggling to survive.

According to the reply from the Minister, the total amount for this year’s ceremony was to increase – to R65 million – but the amount budgeted for the Department’s own cost (i.e. the amount of public money spent) would decrease, down to R21 million. The rest, some R44 million, would be covered by sponsorships and associated partners.

R21 million still seems excessive. And it speaks badly of those private sponsors too, who are willing to throw such huge amounts behind any event in which television is involved but are reluctant to sponsor anything with less exposure. By way of contrast, Telkom recently terminated its R11 million annual sponsorship of Swimming SA – an organization that already operates on a well-worn shoestring budget.

Here, then, the DA was presented with two options: It could welcome the decrease in public spending (indeed, it could justifiably claim some credit for it, as it was largely responsible for highlighting the problem last year) and say more needs to be cut and allocated elsewhere in the future, but that the general intention was good. Or, it could focus on the total amount, and suggest it represents an increase in spending and that this is outrageous.

The latter option is the more devious of the two and, whether or not the R21 million is still excessive, punishes the Department for cutting rather than increasing the amount it spent. It speaks poorly of the DA that it chose to pursue it.

Likewise, whatever the ethics of the sponsors, it speaks well of the Department that it sought out their financial support. Whatever your position, the Department of Sport now presumably has some R25 million in additional funds to allocate elsewhere and which were unavailable last year, which is something. That fact too, however, was overlooked by the DA’s response. A more interesting question might be what that additional money is being spent on.

Although the DA did not pretend the sponsorship component did not exist it essentially ignored it and the moral thrust of its argument is captured by this sentiment from the statement:

“It is simply unacceptable that Minister Mbalula chooses to spend a R65 million on amplifying ‘razzmatazz’ instead of service delivery.”

As if to magnify this disingenuous claim, it then provided a list of comparative spending possibilities, on which the R65 million could be spent (“3 250 swimming pools at R20 000 each”, for example). Of course, if one was to do that, you would have to use the R21 million figure, not the R65 million – sponsors don’t give money generically, it is event specific and the big draw card here would be potential television coverage of the ceremony. All of this the DA repeated on Twitter in a series of tweets, to fuel any potential outrage.

As an action step, the DA said it would be writing to the Auditor-General “requesting that this expenditure be classified as fruitless and wasteful, and that Minister Mbalula be disciplined accordingly”. This point will probably be overlooked, but that request is both wrong (in terms of the AG’s mandate) and politically at odds with various concerns the DA has with the AG’s ever-growing ambit.

The AG can assess whether money is properly spent in terms of procedure. In other words, that something is properly budgeted for, that money is properly allocated, that proper procedures are followed and that it is, in fact, spent in the final instance. It is not the AG’s job to determine policy. This is something the DA has expressed concerned about, particularly in the Western Cape, where it governs – that as the AG’s influence grows it is beginning to make judgement calls about policy decisions, as opposed to good financial practice. The electorate determines the policy it wants, not the AG.

But here, in this statement, the DA has basically given the AG an open mandate to prescribe policy. No doubt the R21 million was properly allocated and will be spent in terms of the rules, whether or not it is bad judgement to have such an awards ceremony, however, is a policy decision. Certainly it is not the AG’s job to “discipline” poor policy choices. That is why we have an election.

This confusion is evident in other recent DA calls. For instance, its first action step on the Gupta debacle was to ask the AG to investigate. What did they expect the AG to find? That Waterkloof Airbase got a qualified audit? The decision to land the Gupta’s plane at a military airstrip had nothing to do with financial management and everything to do with political decision-making.

So why did the DA chose to go the route it did? Instead of welcoming the reduction in spending, even if that welcoming was qualified, it felt obliged to misrepresent the whole affair.

One reason, the obvious one, is that bad news sells and in an environment where executive extravagance is so prevalent, at first glance this must have seemed to tick all the right boxes. But one could have quite credibly made the case R21 million was still excessive, without using the R65 million total.

A second, more depressing option, is that it failed to identify the good news – that some R25 million extra was now available to the Department, compared to 2012, to spend on more worthy things. However limited the Department’s decrease in expenditure, it is a step in the right direction; in turn, a response to public sentiment and opposition pressure – both achievements the DA had, ironically, helped bring about. Given how tone deaf the ANC government generally is on such things, perhaps this was thus an opportunity missed.

Either way, it was a poor statement.

  • Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols), Winner: Best Political Blog 2012.

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