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The politics of public wage negotiations exposes the faultlines of state expenditure

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Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

The shocking spectacle of the decline in public finances is only worsened by the pain being passed on to frontline workers. State departments are replete with projects and programmes which are a drain on the fiscus. Politicians and benefactors stand between these programmes’ inexplicable survival and the fiscus closing the taps for good. This dance around the politics of public finances colours the context of wage negotiations with the state.

There is nothing that focuses the mind more and enforces discipline than having to encounter tough times and being ill prepared during a trying period.

For years, South Africa has been on a slippery fiscal slope underscored by wasteful and fruitless, as well as irregular, expenditure. Add to that ministerial vanity projects and programmes which are jealously guarded and vigorously defended, despite severe underperformance and leakage. 

In these desperate times of Covid-19, public finances are in dire straits and stretched to their limits. So say the fiscal authorities, citing the above-stated factors as among the causes. Well, not in that exact wording. However, the language they are using to drive the point home is dramatic and, in equal parts, emotive. The remedy prescribed is austerity.

“We are in a tight spot,” admits Treasury Director-General Dondo Mogajane, while he describes as “painful” the decision not to implement the third year of the now-infamous 2018 public wage agreement. Furthermore, “as you are all aware… we have budgeted for no increase in remuneration for the next few years.”

Although the government has made an about-turn on this stance, one cannot imagine that the 1.5% offer placed before workers in the public sector will do much to sway their demands for inflation-linked wage increases. Neither will the R978 “cash gratuity” cool rising temperatures in the bargaining council — it might just provoke them to rise much faster than intended.

The timing of the mea culpa austerity statements is both unfortunate and inopportune, given that workers in the public sector are still negotiating for their dues. These are not just high-ranking and well-remunerated public officials. It’s the teachers, the police, the healthcare workers — and the list goes on. It would be neither unreasonable nor misleading to categorise these public workers as victims of bad political decisions. It would not be incorrect either to say they are collateral damage in a crisis not of their making. Moreover, they keep the wheels of the state machinery turning.  

The annual ritual of the Office of the Auditor-General releasing a post-mortem of the country’s public finances at all levels of the state — local, provincial and national — and its myriad entities, is the early detection system whose sounding of alarm bells has been ignored, and rang hollow, for so long. The release of the public sector audit outcomes has, unfortunately, turned into somewhat of a spectacle rather than an event that prompts introspection.

The behaviour which drives the eye-watering numbers denoting the wastage of public resources is seldom resolved. Consequence management is the elusive ideal or missing ingredient. But we shall see now that the Public Audit Act has been amended to give the Auditor-General more teeth.

South Africans have long been told to “connect the dots”. The picture forming from this exercise is grotesque. 

How unfortunate that in this adverse period of a public health predicament, with the accompanying economic downsides, frontline workers in the public service are told to tighten their belts. No matter which way the issue is packaged, the bitter sting lingers. It is made worse by the fact the government is only now becoming enlivened to the reality that it is the author of its own public finances dilemma.

Mogajane’s counterpoint to the criticism levelled against the government about its stance on workers’ compensation is that this option “… is less painful than some other options that would impact more on service delivery.” Fair enough.

But, the public sector unions would argue differently and point out that a wage freeze, or a paltry offer of a 1.5% increase, is the low-hanging fruit option on the table. In other words, doing this carries less political risk.

The Treasury director-general concedes as much by alluding to the fiscus being unable to make inroads on cutting expenditure on underperforming departmental programmes, some of which are “failing”.

“… [Every] programme, no matter how ineffectual, has defenders among officials and politicians, and beneficiaries… [Those] stakeholders can be quite vocal in defending themselves and their programmes. This makes it politically difficult to do targeted cuts,” says Mogajane.

The candour is refreshing. However, it is hard to imagine that this will be enough to assuage workers in the public sector. BM/DM

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  • You don’t mention that the public sector is grossly overstaffed and that the multitudes render the worst possible service. As a tax payer I don’t see why I have to pay more. Reduce the numbers, improve the service, and remunerate the essential workers better – on performance, not demand.

  • Government employees have been paid in full during the Covid-19 crisis, while mostly doing no work. Private employees were paid for working – the no work no pay principal. Why on earth should there be any increases for government workers? Count the ‘pay without working’ and they have been adequately

  • 1.5% of an already bloated payroll is still a lot of money. Governmental managers – so-called directors – earn well over R 1 mill p/a. On the lowest end degreed nurses take home approx R20 000 p/m. Very skewed structure. Clearly the government cannot govern.

  • Perhaps we should start with some zero-based budgeting where we start with an empty slate of expenses and zero employees. and take it from there……..

  • So many apt comments, BUT, let’s face the elephant in the room! Too many upper level state employees not doing their jobs but enjoying grossly overpaid and over- perked positions. Nationaly, provincialy, and locally. Too many Ministries. Too expensive cars. Too many bodyguards. Until government