In their opposition of the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers' recommendation of a 5% salary increase for President Jacob Zuma last week, several leaders of the parliamentary opposition fell over themselves, one after another, repeating the mantra that "for the first time in the last 21 years the President's salary is being objected by the opposition". 'The first time in 21 years' was therefore punted as some sort of an historic phenomenon worthy of national media attention.
The opposition invented its own history, or should I say, media publicity history, simply by doing something they couldn’t think of in the last 21 years. Imagine if making history or being included in historical records were as simple as pulling a new media stunt; all of us would be history-makers or record breakers worthy of media headlines.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years and later become the first black President of South Africa, Barack Obama shuttered 200 years of US history by becoming the country’s first African-American president, and scientist Ralph Bunche became the first black Nobel Laureate since Alfred Nobel formed the Nobel Prize in 1900. The extraordinary deeds of these eminent figures earned them inclusion into the annals of history, and will forever be referred to as “the first in history”. The opposition on Thursday bragged about its own “first time in history” by outdoing their previous publicity stunts in the last 21 years, opposing the President’s salary increase. Making history was that simple, and the media spectacle ensued.
But the matter of the Commission’s recommendation for the President’s salary increase is in reality stale news. The media had already reported about it in January when the commission published its recommendations for a 5% salary increase for all office bearers, which include the president, deputy president, ministers, deputy ministers, members of parliament, municipal councillors, mayors and traditional leaders. The Commission, which is headed by a jurist, independently reviews and recommends salaries and allowances of public office bearers on an annual basis. The commission is necessary in our democratic constitutional system anchored on checks and balances to ensure that politicians don’t determine their own remuneration and annual increases.
It is often said that for every finger that points there are four others pointing back, with the thumb pointing right at the head of the pointer as if questioning the thinking up there.
What those who indulged in the opposition’s pastime of melodramatic posturing and dishonest sermonising on Thursday seemed to think what they were opposing and rubbishing was the recommendation of the ANC, simply because the motion came in the name of the ANC chief whip – as the rules stipulates. One DA MP even ignorantly tweeted that “ANC is tabling a motion for President’s salary increase”.
The reality is that the recommendation has as little to do about the President and the ANC as it is about MPs themselves. The recommendation is a product of a thorough and meticulous process by an independent commission led by a respectable judge, and could only be tabled for consideration of parliament through a chief whip of the majority party as the rules of legislature stipulate. Therefore in trashing the recommendation of the commission, the opposition MPs questioned the integrity of the independent commissioners and undermined their carefully considered work. The parties that took turns disparaging the commission’s recommendation are the same that usually claim to defend the judiciary and independent institutions.
What was easily missed in the debate on the commission’s recommendation regarding the President’s salary was the fact that the 5% increase was not exclusively for the President, but for all office bearers – including opposition MPs themselves. While these MPs fell over themselves opposing the President’s salary increase for all spurious claims imaginable, including alleged underperformance – as if it was a performance bonus the House was asked to consider – they were only too happy to pocket the same percentage increase.
Since taking office in 2009 Zuma has been sensitive to South Africans’ social and economic conditions, opting on various occasions for salary increases below those recommended by the Commission. Since 2010 for instance, the President has never approved or accepted the Commission’s recommended increase that is above the prevailing inflation rate. In the year that he came into office (2009) the Commission recommended 8% but President Zuma reduced it to 7%. In 2010 the Commission recommended 7% but he decided against it and substantially lowered it to 5%. In 2013, after the tragic incidents in Marikana, the Commission recommended 7% but President Zuma decided against an increase for himself but approved increases for members of parliament and other office bearers.
In the last financial year the President turned down the 7% salary increase for himself and opted for no increase, but he condoned that percentage for all MPs. Despite the directors-general of all departments also declining any salary increases in 2013, following the President’s example, none of the holier-than-thou opposition MPs who stood on that podium to condemn the increase followed suit to demonstrate sensitivity for our people’s socio-economic conditions.
The President’s decision for a zero salary increase coincided with the publication of a book, Executive Salaries – Who Should Have a Say on Pay, showing that obscene salaries of private sector CEOs have hit new heights, further widening the pay gap in which some CEOs earn 2000 times more than average workers. His decision was thus an exemplary gesture and a clear message to those private sector executives to be sensitive to the plight of their workers.
As the parliamentary leaders of DA and EFF pointed fingers at the President, saying that the taxpayer already pays everything for the President, the rest of the fingers were aiming back at them. Other than the conveniently omitted fact that they accepted for themselves the 5% salary increase they objected for the President, in their moralistic tirade they did not mention the fact that the taxpayer too pays almost everything for them. These benefits include accommodation, transport, food, flights and significant subsidies for cars and other comforts for MPs convenience in the course of performing their constitutional duties.
When they came to Parliament last year EFF parliamentary leaders, whose favourite pastime include manufacturing fantastic and lofty theories and hopes of utopianism that can never exist beyond their imaginations, promised that their MPs won’t indulge in free parliamentary food, stay at free parliamentarians villages or use free flights private or private hospitals. Hardly a year in Parliament those lofty and fantastic promises have been discarded. Now the EFF MPs are conspicuous by the redness of their overalls at parliamentary dining halls, free parliamentary transports and flights. In fact, the first battle the EFF waged as it arrived in Parliament was to challenge the inadequacy of the parliamentary medical aid scheme, probably because it wasn’t good enough to cover private hospital consultations.
So as these opposition leaders outdid one another in an orgy of chest-beating and self-righteousness on Thursday, proclaiming themselves as history-makers for being the first to oppose the President’s salary increase in the last 21 years, all that some of us could see were the four fingers pointed directly at the rank hypocrisy at play. DM
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Moloto Mothapo is senior manager for media and communication at the ANC parliamentary caucus. Previously he worked as information officer, and also acted as spokesperson, for the Congress of SA Trade Unions. He holds a degree in journalism. This letter contains strictly his personal views.
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