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Durban - There’s no such thing as a free lunch unless you are a Durban councillor or member of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature. Then taxpayers pick up the tab for your meals.
In the 2012/13 financial year the catering budget for committee meetings in the eThekwini Municipality was R1.120 million, a figure confirmed by city treasurer Krish Kumar.
This is despite an order by the provincial Treasury four years ago that all government departments and municipalities cut costs.
The buffet meals, served at the legislature and eThekwini council meetings, include traditional African dishes such as steamed bread, spinach, tripe, chops, roast chicken, fried fish and salads.
While MPLs earn between R860 000 and R1.8 million each a year and councillors rake in between R400 000 and R1m a year, the former pay only a stipend towards meals while the latter are not required to pay at all.
Some politicians opt not to eat as a matter of “principle”, while others say the free meals are an “old, accepted practice”.
In March, Newcastle Municipality mayor Afzul Rehman cancelled free meals for councillors. Where food was served, it cost councillors R100 a plate.
In eThekwini, councillors are served muffins, croissants, sandwiches or biscuits with tea and coffee for breakfast.
Executive committee members are spoilt for choice with more extravagant meals, says DA councillor Heinz de Boer.
“We need to bear in mind it is not our money. We don’t need the lamb chops, roast potatoes, roast chicken and a vegetable dish. A couple of sandwiches would be fine,” he said.
But De Boer stressed the issue was “complex” because meetings were often lengthy.
Minority Front executive committee member Patrick Pillay said councillors should pay for the food provided.
“The council needs to undertake some austerity measures and instead of serving us hot meals we should be given fruit,” he said.
Ethekwini spokesman Thabo Mofokeng said the issue should be viewed in context as other cost-cutting measures were undertaken.
“Refreshments are provided for in council policies that get reviewed constantly to ensure there is no wastage, and also taking into account the nature of the meeting, duration and the dignitaries being hosted,” he said.
Mofokeng said not providing refreshments would disrupt the progress of a meeting if it were to be adjourned to allow councillors to find food.
Earlier this year, Finance MEC Ina Cronjé announced austerity measures to curb wasteful expenditure in government departments. The measures included no bottled water and that catering for provincial government meetings be stopped.