Minister details two-year battle with accommodation

Friday, November 4, 2011

Cape Town - The Minister of Agriculture, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, today put to rest media reports that have painted her as an extravagant minister and detailed her two-year battle to secure stable and affordable accommodation - including a night she was forced to sleep in her car with her two young children.

This comes as her department provided Parliament with incorrect information last month when responding to a question about the minister's accommodation in both Pretoria and Cape Town since her appointment in 2009.

Briefing media in Parliament today, Joemat-Pettersson explained when she was appointed Minister of Agriculture in May 2009, she had initially stayed in a hotel when in Pretoria, but had requested to be moved to a guesthouse because she felt it would be too expensive for the state to pay for her stay in a hotel.

It had also became apparent that the Department of Public Works - which is responsible for overseeing accommodation of ministers - had been in no rush to provide her with a house in Pretoria, something she was entitled to as a minister.

However, because accommodation is chosen by departmental officials and not ministers, she was not aware at the time that R420 000 was spent on the Johannesburg guesthouse. This was only recently brought to her attention.

"I moved into a guesthouse in Johannesburg, and one evening when I came back from work I found my bags had been packed up and put in a storeroom. When I enquired why I was being kicked out of the guesthouse, we were informed that there was a prior booking for the Fifa 2010 World Cup.

"Officials from the department frantically looked for accommodation while my children and I slept in the car. When they eventually found a room for me, my children, the nanny and I had to share a bed in one room," she said.

Officials from her department eventually found accommodation for her in a guesthouse in Johannesburg - the one that has sparked the current controversy.

The minister became the centre of media attention following her reply to Parliament about her accommodation since her appointment and her hotel stays in Cape Town and Pretoria. The information was not explained properly to Parliament.

Some of the entries in the reply were incorrect in that they included meetings that were held at hotels and captured as bed and meals.

Joemat-Pettersson said following the media reports she enquired from her officials what had led to them spending an "obscene amount of money" on an ordinary guesthouse.

Her officials told her that because all accommodation had been fully booked and because the guesthouse had been block-booked by a foreign company for the entire World Cup, the officials had had to pay an inflated amount to secure it.

"I did not know that the department was paying the guesthouse an astronomical amount of money, especially after I had asked that I be booked in a guesthouse to avoid the high cost of a hotel," she said.

She said ministers did not approve accommodation and added that the booking of the guesthouse had nothing to do with the World Cup, contrary to some media reports.

In all, Joemat-Pettersson stayed for almost 16 months in a hotel and guesthouses in Johannesburg before she was provided with official accommodation in Pretoria.

She moved in to a property in Waterkloof, Pretoria East, identified by her officials after the Department of Public Works failed to do so in the last week of September last year. Since then, she has not stayed in a hotel.

"We have noted the comments attributed to the DA's Lourie Bosman in today's media in which he alleged that I stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in April and May this year.

"This is not true. I have hosted meetings at the Sheraton, including the MinMEC and the African Ambassadors in preparation for the African Ministerial Conference on Climate-Smart Agriculture which we co-hosted with the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in September in Johannesburg," she said.

She said the DA was well within its rights to approach the Public Protector to lodge a complaint about her accommodation and that she would cooperate fully with the probe and was confident she would be exonerated.

Joemat-Pettersson has since requested that the director-general steps up the performance and the monitoring of parliamentary replies. "I take full responsibility for this," she said.

Director-General Langa Zitha said the department "has a sense" of who the official responsible for the R420 000 approval of the guesthouse was, but was investigating further.

Meanwhile, regarding her Cape Town residence, Joemat-Pettersson moved out of her dilapidated official house in Groote Schuur Estate in Rondebosch in September last year after staying there more than a year. She still uses a rented house.

Her move had been prompted by a freak accident when tiles on her kitchen floor popped up and after Public Works had failed - despite promises - to carry out much-needed renovations on her official home.

The minister had moved to a rented home instead of to a hotel, as suggested by Public Works, because she wanted a stable environment in which to raise her two young boys.

While staying in the rented house she had paid for electricity, water, garden, pool services, furnishings and a domestic worker out of her own pocket for more than a year, even though Public Works is tasked with covering expenses such as these from ministers.

She was still battling to reclaim some of these expenses.

The official home had not been worked on for about a year, but about a week ago - after her accommodation reply had been reported in the media - Public Works had started with renovations to the official home.

Joemat-Pettersson had refused to move to a hotel as it would not be suitable for her two young boys, who had to attend school, for this reason she opted to move into a rented house, while her official residence was being repaired by Public Works.

She had to live out of a suitcase for 16 months but said she hadn't complained about it because she had work to do.

"I do not want to be viewed as a victim. Secondly, I am not comfortable [with] going public on this matter as it affects my children," said the single mother.

"It is only because the matter has caused so much confusion that I have chosen to go public on this," she said.