GAYE DAVIS

GOVERNMENT departments racked up a bill of nearly R5 billion for catering, entertainment and travel in the past year – and MPs are on the warpath.

They say the spending – described as “obscene” by one MP – shows that pleas by President Jacob Zuma and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to “do more with less” are not being heeded.

Themba Godi, chairman of Parliament’s watchdog over the public purse, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), said yesterday that spending on these areas was the easiest to cut back on.

“If departments are having problems cutting down on these items, what chance is there of reining in unauthorised expenditure, or spending that is fruitless and wasteful?”

DA spokesman on Scopa, Dion George, urged Gordhan to stop the “obscene expenditure on luxuries”.

“It boggles the mind that so much money can be spent on luxuries for ministers and government officials when so many South Africans remain in poverty and our economy continues to nosedive,” he said.

Figures culled from national departments’ annual reports show up the five biggest culprits for running up big catering, entertainment and travel and subsistence bills.

While not all annual reports of departments and state entities have been tabled in Parliament yet, in the 2011/12 financial year, 34 national departments spent R194m on catering, R31.7m on entertainment and R4.4bn on travel and subsistence.

George said the Defence Department’s R10.6m entertainment bill almost topped that of Dirco, whose entertainment costs covered more than 180 embassies and consulates.

“Defence also spent R733.1m on travel and subsistence.”

The departments of Defence and Police spent the most on catering – R35.9m and R22.1m respectively.

“It is clearly hungry work keeping South Africans protected,” said George.

He noted that the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities had spent R18.8m – more than 13 percent of its “relatively small budget” of R143.1m on travel and subsistence – while notching up a “staggering R4.5m on catering and R56 000 on entertainment”.

He said he would be writing to Gordhan to ask that “he issues a notice to all government departments to put a stop to this kind of spending on luxuries”.

“It is nothing short of obscene – particularly at a time when so many poor [people] are struggling to put food on the table for their families.”

Details of the spending come as it emerged that a 12-month salary freeze is under consideration by government, business, labour and community representatives who gathered on Friday at an urgent meeting called by Zuma to try and hammer out an agreement that would help calm inflamed labour relations and restore investor confidence in the country.

More details are expected after a follow-up meeting set for tomorrow.

Zuma convened the meeting in the wake of warnings from both Gordhan and Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus about the effect of widespread wildcat strikes in the mining sector on the economy and downgrades by ratings agencies.

But Godi was critical of politicians, saying that “behaviour patterns at leadership level” did not reflect what was being said about the need for more careful spending.

“People say things in public, but when they leave the podium, they do something else in terms of public funds.

“If everyone was walking the talk, South Africa could be very far ahead.”

George recalled how Zuma, in his February state-of-the-nation address, called on his government to “kill that sense of self” and “not live above your people, but live with them”.

“How then does he explain the obscene amounts of money his government spent on catering, entertainment and travel?” he asked.

Gordhan has repeatedly used his budget speeches and policy statements to stress the need for belt-tightening.

Due to deliver his medium-term budget policy statement in Parliament next week, his words a year ago may haunt him.

Delivering his policy statement last year, Gordhan urged government to make a “key shift” by curbing spending on consumption to plough resources instead into long-term assets such as infrastructure and its maintenance.

“We must do more with less,” he said.