Vuyo Mvoko | Mboweni’s public service pickle
The story of Bhisho’s “ghost workers” is legendary.
Back in the day, year in and year out official reports would be tabled in the provincial legislature showing how millions of taxpayers’ money went to the salaries of workers who had either died, had never set foot in any government building, or never even existed.
To say nothing of the widespread fraud and corruption that saw public servants helping themselves to social grants, awarding themselves housing subsidies they didn’t qualify for or deserve, while others were illegally doing business with the state.
The Eastern Cape government, of course, may have been the poster boy, but it certainly wasn’t alone.
Fact is that the scourge crippled provincial governments and municipalities across the country.
It took years of concerted, and often risky, efforts to turn the situation around – with a lot of help from law enforcement agencies like the Special Investigating Unit, and in the Eastern Cape dedicated and courageous officials like the provincial health department’s Dr Siva Pillay.
With pressing issues to deal with – which were impacting negatively on both the functioning and the credibility of the government – there was very little attention paid to equally important, but thought to be less grave, matters.
And so, critical conversations on such issues as the size, calibre and cost of SA’s public service took a back seat.
And it’s now coming back to bite us.
Shortly after his appointment as finance minister in October 2018, Tito Mboweni was quite candid about his thoughts on the public service.
Delivering the Kader Asmal Memorial Lecture on the eve of his maiden medium-term budget statement, he bluntly said SA’s public service wage bill was “too high”.
“If we are better organised, we should be making sure we do not have a situation where R8 of every R10 goes to salaries and wages in the public service,” he said.
“That means we are left with R2 for other services – to fix a hospital or a clinic.
“Mathematically, it does not make sense that R8 out of R10 goes to salaries and unions still demand service.
“Where will the money come from?”
Unions were quick to hit back, with SA Federation of Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi saying Mboweni was “deliberately exaggerating” the numbers.
On Wednesday, Mboweni once again grabbed the bull by the horns, telling the nation during his budget speech: “The public wage bill is unsustainable. We must shift expenditure to investment.
“National and provincial compensation budgets will be reduced by R27bn over the next three years.
“The first step is to allow older public servants who want to do so to retire early and gracefully.
“This will save an estimated R4.8bn in 2019/20, R7.bn in 2020/21 and R8bn in 2021/22.
“In time this will be complemented by limits on overtime and bonus payments as well as pay progression.
“The system of staffing our diplomatic missions is unjustified and should be reviewed urgently.”
Cosatu – which during its nationwide protest marches against job losses last week threatened to “review” its decision to support and canvass for the ANC in the run-up to the May national election – was quick to respond to Mboweni’s “inflammatory and misleading rhetoric”.
In a statement, the federation said if the government “wants stable labour relations then it must engage workers about their conditions.
“It cannot announce unilateral changes to performance and overtime pay, matters that are governed by law, and not engage workers at the Public Service C Bargaining Council.
“This will push workers to strike to protect their rights.”
As far as the Public Service Association is concerned, the Ramaphosa administration has now “declared war” on government workers.
Not even Mboweni’s “gesture of goodwill”, the announcement that “members of parliament and provincial legislatures and executives at public entities will not be receiving a salary increase this financial year”, has pacified the unions.
Ahead of an election, it’s unlikely the government will take labour on – at least not straight away.
The truth, though, is that many problems continue to afflict SA’s public service – including wastage, mismatches that come with over-staffing in some areas and under-staffing in others, lack of discipline and commitment.
Videos of front-line staffers on social media on their mobile phones, or playing games on their PCs while they are supposed to be helping citizens, only attest to the latter point.
Yes, unions are primarily about securing shop-floor victories for their workers, but governments are about doing what’s in the best interests of the nation.
We are sitting with bigger problems today because yesterday we kept on postponing confronting the problems there have been at important entities like Eskom and the SABC.
The time is now.