How not to live off fat of the land

2011-11-05 17:17

Cathy Dlodlo finds out how two senior members of the Free State legislature stay fit in spite of the daily spread of stodge on the official menu

One of the first things Aaron Motsoaledi complained about when he was made minister of health in May 2009 was the spread of creamy pastries, doughnuts and desserts regularly served up in Parliament.

The health-conscious minister said he hoped his new role in President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet might prompt other parliamentarians to change their unhealthy lifestyles.

But since then it’s been more a case of carbo-load continua.

Ministers and officials country-wide have found it hard to say no to the bowls of peppermints on every conference table and the stodgy lunches served up at meetings.

It’s just not that easy to change things, says Free State legislature spokesperson Jongi Ndakane.

“We try and offer members a balanced, healthy diet when we meet in the city. But often we’re in rural areas and healthy choices are not always available.”

Each committee at the legislature has a coordinator responsible for menus and liaising with the chairperson to find out if members have special requests, says Ndakane.

“Like the premier [Free State premier Ace Magashule]; he eats very healthily, so we know what type of menu to consider when he’s coming to a meeting”. It’s when legislature staff travel that the wheels come off the health wagon.

“In African culture, it’s considered rude not to accept food offered,” says Ndakane.

“Especially in our line of work, people can easily think you’re (acting) superior if you don’t eat the food. So you eat.”Courtesy aside when playing away, breakfast at the legislature is hardly a healthy affair.

A typical morning meeting would feature muffins and a selection of cocktail sandwiches filled with cheese or meat.

Lunch would include, says Ndakane, “two types of meat and two types of vegetables”.So how do high-ranking government employees who want to stay fit cope?

City Press spoke to two senior Free State politicians who manage to watch their diets in spite of the temptations.

“The food they serve at meetings – like meat with rice – can smell and look very good,” admits Free State health MEC Fezi Ngubentombi (46), “but I opt for my fruit.”She carries a bag of fresh fruit with her wherever she goes, grapes being her favourite “fast food”.

“I also drink a lot of water and avoid fizzy drinks. And no KFC!” she says.

Ngubentombi and her colleague, provincial legislature deputy speaker Ouma Tsopo (46), both love rooibos tea – black with honey and cinnamon for Ngubentombi, and with one modest spoon of brown sugar for Tsopo.

Tsopo, who’s been a member of the legislature since 1994, is justifiably proud that “I still fit into my clothes from that time”.

Both women have kept up their exercise routines despite the demands of their jobs. Ngubentombi lives in Bloemfontein; Tsopo commutes several times a week from Virginia to the capital for sittings of the legislature. “When I’m in Virginia I park my car at home and walk everywhere,” says Tsopo.

“Even during door-to-door campaigns I park and walk all the way.”

Ngubentombi is a gym bunny. “I also take a morning jog and love doing crunches,” she says.“Even when I’m overseas in a hotel, I make sure I do my crunches. That’s why I have a flat tummy.”

Both start the day with a healthy and filling breakfast – wholewheat bread and a glass of milk for Ngubentombi, and plain yoghurt, toast and an egg for Tsopo. What do they do when they’re at an all-day meeting and healthy eating isn’t an option?

Tsopo takes a small portion of whatever is being served. Ngubentombi sticks to her fruit bag but will eat fish instead of meat if it’s on the menu.“I grew up loving meat,” she sighs, “but I realise it’s not always healthy.”

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