Sunday Times E-Edition

De Lille pulls plug on MPs’ junket to US


● Tourism minister Patricia de Lille blocked MPs from travelling to Freedom Day celebrations in New York City last month by refusing to grant permission for South African Tourism (SAT) to pay for the trip.

The embattled entity asked De Lille to approve travel for three tourism portfolio committee MPs to the US at a cost of R157,659 each.

SAT accounts to the tourism committee, which in recent weeks has been highly critical of the way it handled the proposed Tottenham Hotspur deal and called for its withdrawal.

De Lille told the Sunday Times this week that she declined SAT’s request to pay for the MPs.

“I received the request and I wrote back to SAT saying this is not permissible in terms of the parliamentary rules. MPs first should get permission from the speaker and then parliament would pay for that. I told them it can’t be done,” she said.

Acting SAT CEO Nomasonto Ndlovu wrote to De Lille on April 16 requesting approval to cover travel costs for the MPs and a representative from the minister’s office “to represent our country South Africa at the Freedom Day celebrations in New York”.

“South African Tourism has invited three members from the portfolio committee on tourism (National Assembly) to join the delegation, and South African Tourism will carry all the costs of the trip to New York.”

In her letter, Ndlovu said the portfolio committee had accepted the invitation from SAT and had submitted the names of committee chair Tandi Mahambehlala, Lusizo Makhubela-Mashele and Manny de Freitas as the three MPs who would travel.

The costs, including flights, accommodation, ground transport and travel insurance for the delegates, were estimated at R630,639.

De Freitas expressed shock when called for comment, saying it was the first he had heard of the trip. “I was never approached. I would never have accepted because it is irregular for MPs to accept payment from the same entities they oversee,” he said.

“We must arrange with the parliamentary budget allocated to our committee and do our job that way, otherwise you are compromising yourself if they are paying for you. It becomes messy,” he said.

The National Assembly chair responsible for committees, Cedric Frolick, said applications for oversight trips are assessed on the purpose, motivation and value to the institution. “Once political approval is granted, parliament pays for the costs associated with the trip. This is done to avoid real or potential conflict of interest that may arise,” he said.

Frolick said Mahambehlala informed him of the invitation from SAT and asked about the procedure to be followed. “I informed her of the procedures and processes in place to deal with invitations of this nature. I’ve not heard again from her on this matter; no application was received to undertake the activity.”

While De Lille says she declined the SAT approval request, SAT says the MPs did not travel because it withdrew the request on April 19 due to time constraints. Sources claimed SAT only withdrew after De Lille declined their request.

Ndlovu told the Sunday Times that the invitation to the portfolio committee was sent by her predecessor, Themba Khumalo, for the commemoration of Freedom Day as SAT had planned tourism promotion activities in the US, one of South Africa’s top three source markets. “We felt that having parliamentary representation was very important,” she said. She said SAT offered to pay for the MPs, subject to approval, because the portfolio committee “serves as an oversight body on all matters related to tourism as it pertains to government”.

“The invitation was therefore extended to the portfolio committee on tourism in order to further familiarise the committee with the work that SAT does and executes in various markets, in this instance the US. “The US is one of South Africa’s top three key markets and the fastest growing post the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Mahambehlala declined to comment.

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