Secretary to Parliament’s salary controversy blows back to presiding officers for lack of transparency and accountability
Parliament’s presiding officers, National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and National Council of Provinces chairperson Amos Masondo, will be reported to the powers and privileges committee, the disciplinary body, for misleading Parliament over its top administrator’s recruitment and salary, says the DA’s Siviwe Gwarube.
It remains to be seen whether anything will be investigated — or if the controversy will be kicked into the grass for the next post-2024-election Parliament. That often happens with political pickles for the governing ANC, including establishing a parliamentary oversight committee for the Presidency as the State Capture Commission recommended.
Xolile George’s appointment as Secretary to Parliament — the national legislature’s accounting officer — was, from the start, mired in questions about his salary. As CEO of the South African Local Government Association (Salga), he earned a R5.8-million package in the 2020/21 financial year.
While he emerged as the front-runner in the interviews in 2021, Parliament decided it could not afford him, and in early 2022 readvertised the post with a salary range of R2,457,227 to R2,604,661.
After the presiding officers on 6 May 2022 recommended George for the job, the parliamentary grapevine speculated about closed-door discussions and salary and T&Cs after the officers’ statement said, “Parliament and Salga will work out all the transitional modalities for the Secretary to Parliament designate.”
Throughout, the official line was that nothing but the official salary range was on offer.
But actually, George’s annual salary package is R4,428,315, approved by Parliament’s presiding officers in a January 2023 memo “to be implemented retrospectively, with effect from his date of appointment as Secretary to Parliament, being the 15th June 2022”, according to the Sunday Times.
That salary package hike was facilitated with a salary review within months of George signing his five-year contract, which ends in mid-2027.
On 14 June 2022, a day before starting the job, George again signed and accepted a post-offer with a R2,604,661 annual package, to which he added in handwriting, according to the document seen by Daily Maverick, “…I specifically record that the agreement between the executive authority [presiding officers] and myself remains that the remuneration and/or benefits will be reviewed on.or [sic] before 1 October 2022”.
The Sunday Times outlines that process, from the appointment of a consultant in September 2022, who delivered George’s salary review in December 2022 to, ultimately, the January memorandum approving the significant salary package increase.
All this indicates a sleight of hand — ticking the boxes, but also finding a loophole to get to a predetermined outcome that was kept under wraps.
Put differently, the presiding officers stuck to their commitment that the Secretary to Parliament would only earn the advertised salary package of up to R2.6-million. But the caveat then, based on prior and undisclosed discussions, facilitated the sharp increase of the total salary package reflected in the employment contract. The presiding officers did this without the consultation which is a long-standing tradition in the multiparty national legislature.
DA Chief Whip Siviwe Gwarube on Sunday said an urgent complaint over this “secret salary deal” would be lodged with the powers and privileges committee against Mapisa-Nqakula and Masondo.
“They have violated the trust that is placed on them to act in the best financial interest of an institution that is battling to fulfil its constitutional obligations due to tight financial constraints,” she said.
“The code of ethics … places additional responsibilities on the executive authority to act ‘in a way that will bear the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that is not discharged by simply acting within the law.’ This has not been done. Instead, the salary negotiations post the appointment point to premeditated misleading of the public and Parliament.”
Questions also arose for IFP Chief Whip Narend Singh, a member of the Joint Standing Committee on the Financial Management of Parliament.
“One would have to ask questions on how this amount was calculated as well as obtain a copy of the employment contract,” he said, adding questions would also be asked about the “total content” of the institution’s annual report.
Strictly speaking, 9½ months of this backdated R4.4-million salary package should be reflected in the 2022/23 annual report. It shows a R3.093-million salary, with R84,000 in post-employment benefits, adding up to a R3.177-million salary package.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Parliament secretary took pay cut from local government association income — yet still gets over R3-million
Parliament’s spokesperson, Moloto Mothapo, could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
Freedom Front Plus Chief Whip Corné Mulder said on Sunday that it was “completely and totally unacceptable” that the Secretary to Parliament earned more than the President as a civil servant heading Parliament’s administration.
“It is not as if the South African Parliament is currently a beacon of excellence. Parliament has been limping along after absolute negligence destroyed Parliament itself.”
That Parliament had “a problem” had already been raised by Mulder in the 1 June 2022 debate on George’s appointment.
“We need a copy of a contract involved because I think that is also important. We have not been furnished with a contract. As a matter of fact, it has not been signed and I cannot think that Parliament would be asked to appoint this person today,” Mulder said then.
That debate was Take Two of George’s confirmation as Secretary to Parliament by both Houses, a must in terms of the parliamentary process. The motion was carried on the back of ANC numbers, with the DA, EFF and FF+ not in support, according to Hansard.
Earlier, on 25 May 2022, an 11th-hour delay hit the motion when opposition political parties complained about the lack of consultations that traditionally unfold over such institutional decisions. The consultations subsequently unfolded.
On 26 May 2022, attempts were also made to discuss George’s salary in the National Assembly programming committee, which is held in public, but Mapisa-Nqakula gave short shrift to this.
“I will not allow for a situation where salaries packages of employees are discussed… If there is anything that needs to be discussed with regard to salary, it will be raised in the meeting of political party leaders,” Mapisa-Nqakula said.
Read more in Daily Maverick: From presidential Q&A catch-up to consultations over opposition wins on Secretary to Parliament
From Sunday’s responses, it seems political parties represented in Parliament were caught off-guard by reports of the R4,428,315 total annual salary package in George’s employment contract.
The official line is likely to be that all was done in line with agreements and contracts — but this saga raises questions about integrity, accountability and transparency in Parliament. DM
UPDATE: On late Monday evening, Parliament issued a statement on Secretary to Parliament Xolile George’s salary hike, confirming the decision to up his salary to R4.4-million was taken following the review of a “sustainable business and remuneration consultancy”.
“The decision to review Mr. George’s compensation package in the previous financial year was not taken lightly and every step taken in this review was characterized by diligence and careful consideration, aligning with our core mission of upholding the highest standards of governance and accountability,” said the statement.
“Concerning the criticism that the presiding officers did not consult with parliamentary parties regarding this decision, it should be noted that the presiding officers have extensively consulted with parties during the recruitment process of the accounting officer (George), including the selection of the successful candidate, despite there being no legal obligation on their part to do so. The decision to review the remuneration package differs significantly from such recruitment processes. It is not practical for the Presiding Officers to consult parties on their day-to-day oversight over the accounting officer…
“In endorsing the recommendation of the experts regarding this review, the presiding officers were also mindful of the prevailing socio-economic conditions in the country. Hence, the reviewed remuneration package for Mr. George was set below (by approximately 26%) what he earned in his previous position as CEO of Salga…”
The 660-word statement concludes,
“The decision to review Mr. Xolile George’s remuneration package was thorough, objective, and in line with longstanding practices. We remain committed to transparency and fairness in all our actions and decisions related to the well-being of our employees, including the accounting officer of Parliament.”