FINGERED: Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat Pettersson used public funds to pay for their holiday trips, says the writer.

JUST about every year, it seems, there is some fuss about how or where someone in the government spent their Christmas holiday.

Last week, it was the turn of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to be the focus of such unwelcome attention.

After the gruelling ANC conference in Mangaung, a no-doubt frazzled Motlanthe decided to head off to the Seychelles to get away from it all.

But being deputy head of state meant he couldn’t just pack up his beach gear and make his way to the airport on his own.

Along with him and his loved one went five bodyguards. After all, any place north of Oliver Tambo International Airport can be a little suspect. And things are not always tranquil in the Seychelles: there was a coup on the Indian Ocean island about 50 years ago.

In December, the holidaymakers and their minders hopped on to an Air Force Falcon 900 and winged their way to carefree bliss. Or so they thought.

Unfortunately, their plane couldn’t land on Desroches Island because of the “unsuitability of the runway”.

Out of sheer necessity, a local charter plane was organised to transport the group from the airport in Seychelles to their destination. The bill of R83 000 was, naturally, covered by our government.

It was this unforeseen expenditure that incurred the wrath of the fusspots.

“Whatever rules apply, it is simply wrong for Deputy President Motlanthe to have used public funds to pay for part of his vacation in the Seychelles, when so many people in our country are living in poverty,” spluttered the DA.

Never mind the fact that the Falcon’s crew remained on the island for the duration of Motlanthe’s holiday to avoid a return trip.

Such thoughtfulness must have saved the state a pretty penny (a one-way trip reportedly costs about R1 million).

Motlanthe’s predecessor, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, also came under fire for a holiday outing one Christmas.

In December 2005, she popped over to the United Arab Emirates.

The DA grumbled that her visit was nothing other than a shopping trip to Dubai.

They moaned bitterly about the fact that Mlambo-Ngcuka’s visit cost the state R604 883 for her alone, never mind the obligatory entourage of bodyguards.

For some reason, then Public Protector Lawrence Mushwana dismissed the DA’s complaint.

Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson also got into trouble for a trip during the Christmas period in 2009.

There she was, blissfully enjoying some time out in Sweden with her two children and their au pair. Then her boss, President Jacob Zuma, urgently summoned her.

Joemat-Pettersson’s early return, on January 1, 2010, cost the state a cool R400 000.

However, this is mere nit-picking: all ministers serve in the government at the president’s pleasure.

The moral of these travel stories?

If you’re in government, don’t go off to distant shores over the Christmas holiday.

Like the rest of us, rather kick off your shoes and stretch your legs in the comfort of your backyard. That will cost you far less, financially and emotionally.

That’s what the president does: he stays at home in December.

Not once has a finger been pointed at him for going off somewhere on a costly Christmas holiday. But, then again, his home in Nkandla is as close to paradise as it gets.