There is a growing concern over a rule change that allows for ministers and deputy ministers to not have to pay for utilities, including water and electricity, says the head of legal at the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA), Stefanie Fick.

Speaking with ENCA, Fick said opposition parties are looking into changes made in the ministerial handbook in May that removed a cap on the value of utilities that would be covered by taxpayers’ money, prescribed by the Department of Public Works under Patricia De Lille.

Prior to this change, ministers were only exempt from paying their bills if the balance fell below a R5,000 cap.

The City Press reported on 9 October that the new handbook reads:

“The department responsible for public works shall be responsible for the costs associated with the provision of water and electricity to official residences”.

While the previous version stated:

“The department responsible for public works shall be responsible for the costs associated with the provision of water and electricity to a state-owned residence, provided that such cost is limited to R5,000 per month per state-owned residence.”

Fick said that this is an unreasonable change that simply doesn’t make sense.

She said that ministers and deputy ministers already earn a healthy wage every year and have seen their salaries increase and perks sweetened.

In light of recent salary increase proposals, the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers recommends a 3% increase in remuneration across all categories of public office bearers for 2023.

Currently, deputy ministers earn around R1.97 million a year and ministers R2.4 million.

If utility exceptions are to be considered perks – that are normal practice in various job positions across fields – government should first consider the currently existing financial circumstances, said Fick. South Africa is currently in economic turmoil with little reprieve expected on the horizon.

“How does that make sense in our current position? How does that make sense in where we are today with the economy?”

According to Fick, the handbook is, unfortunately, not legislation – it’s just a rule book – and to oppose its provisions, the following must occur:

  1. Political parties that work in opposition to the ruling party ensure that instances as such do not occur again – to hold others to account as well as themselves.
  2. Civil society also needs to be more vocal about the unfairness of such changes.

We are already struggling with a small tax base that has to cater for all the expenses; instead of creating trust, that tax is being used for the right thing, we are seeing things like these perks, said Fick.

The law expert said that standing against this provision in a legal battle in court will be costly. She added that pressure from the public to initiate change is important, and it is unreasonable to spend more money in court.

“Why should we spend more money on getting something done that shouldn’t have happened in the first place?”

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