WATCH: Curbing wage bill is akin to putting lipstick on a pig amid dreary growth forecast

CAPE TOWN – Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s announcement that the cabinet, premiers and MECs’ salaries would be frozen at current levels, with chances of an adjustment downwards may be akin to putting lipstick on a pig, if the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union’s (Sadtu’s) reaction is anything to go by.

The minister’s announcement was received with warm applause in Parliament after which he announced further cost-cutting measures, emphasising that board and executive management compensation and benefits should be reduced.

However, Sadtu, the largest union in the education and public service sector, is not impressed by the Medium-term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) which was delivered on the backdrop of an economy that is forecast to grow at a dreary 0.5 percent in 2019. 

The union said the MTBPS left public servants further demoralised as Mboweni, once again, fingered the public sector wage bill as one area the government would focus on to reducing spending.  

“We are not impressed at all because the state-owned enterprises, which have had their wage bills ballooned over the last few years, are bailed out by more than R36 billion. This amount would have been used to restore the dignity of those who work in learning institutions without toilets, water, appropriate classrooms, security personnel and education support personnel to be deployed to this needy area,” Sadtu said in a statement. 

There was little to no chance that civil servants or their trade unions were going to buy into the Minister’s idea of capping or even reducing salaries in order to reduce government spending.


Dawie Roodt, the chief economist of the Efficient Group, said while several ideas mooted by Mboweni in the MTBPS were good, they were 10 years too late.

“After listening to the minister, it is clear that economic growth is going to remain dismal, unemployment is going to increase, and government debt is going to grow by leaps and bounds closely followed by growth in unemployment statistics.

“All Mboweni really achieved was to create the impression that he was honest enough to share the bad news with the country as a whole in the hope that he would be given some breathing space until he presented the main budget in February of 2020,” said Roodt.

Neil Roets, the chief executive of Debt Rescue, cautioned that deeply indebted consumers should face the fact that they were between a rock and a hard place for the foreseeable future with no relief in sight.

“The economy is under serious pressure and all the Minister really managed to get across was that there was very little light on the horizon. One thing he did make clear was that the government was broke,” Roets said.

Sadtu said for the Minister to say the average government wage bill has risen by 66 percent in the last 10 years, sought to suggest that public servants were overpaid. Teachers are overworked teaching overcrowded classrooms and by the look of things this situation will not be reversed as prospects of employing more teachers are non-existent. 

These teachers sleep in schools over the weekends to do extra work. They work during holidays and, in some cases, conduct evening classes on a daily basis. Over and above that, they still have to hear the news that they are not needed and their meagre salaries must be slashed. 

The Budget Justice Coalition said the wage expenditure as a percentage of total government spending had been stable over the past two decades. 

Proponents of cutting the public sector wage bill are silent on the distribution of salaries within the wage bill, which has become top-heavy, with 29 000 state employees now earning over R1 million, according to Minister Mboweni.

“We applaud the efforts made to curb ministers’ salaries and benefits. But we need a plan for public sector employment that is based on competency and capacity to deliver our developmental goals in the long run,” said BJC.

The government needs to attract more young people into public service. Sadtu said the carrot of good salaries and better conditions of service are the only tools available to attract and retain good public servants. 

“We need more police to combat crime and corruption. We need more nurses and doctors to implement the National Health Insurance (NHI). We look forward to engaging in robust discussions in the relevant bargaining structures to achieve a sustainable arrangement as the Minister indicated in his speech,” Sadtu said.

The union condemned the tendency of undermining collective bargaining forums by making big pronouncements such as the call for voluntary retirements without engaging workers in proper bargaining forums. 

Sadtu said: “There is nothing about us without us!”


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