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Opinionista

Maybe we need better-paid but fewer MPs

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Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African ambassador to Ireland.

Of course, the salaries of MPs are generous compared with the average salary in South Africa – in fact they are about four times higher. However, we do not want average MPs and those are the ones we are getting far too often at the moment.

As we get closer to the elections I have been wondering how long the newbies – especially the rich ones – are going to last if they get elected. I mean if millionaires like Herman Mashaba and Louis Liebenberg see their first salary slip after working super-long hours, will they really stay for the sake of public service?

I doubt it. 

For the record: I think members of Parliament should be paid more. OK, OK, I know that I most probably sent up your blood pressure, but bear with me. 

There is a common perception – fuelled by newspaper headlines – that MPs earn exorbitant salaries and are millionaires for basically doing nothing. While it is true that they earn a little more than a million rand per year, and yes, some do very little, it is not quite as simple. 

The total salary package of an MP is just over R1-million per annum. However, once tax, pension fund and medical aid are deducted, they are left with just over R52,000 per month. All political parties insist that their elected officials pay a separate contribution to the party, leaving them with about R50,000 per month. This is most probably what the rich blokes spend on Starbucks in a month. 

Canadian MPs earn R2.7-million per annum and American members of Congress pocket more than R3-million each year. Closer to home, Kenyan representatives get paid R1.7-million and their Nigerian counterparts get even more.

“And what about all the benefits?” I hear you ask. MPs get a certain number of airline tickets for themselves and their families to travel between their constituencies and Parliament or for other parliamentary work. 

They also get refunded for parking at the airports, a certain amount of cellphone costs as well as a relocation allowance. Food during sessions is subsidised (but not free) as is accommodation in the parliamentary villages for those who live out of Cape Town.  

This might sound like a lot, but these types of benefits would be fairly standard in the private sector at a certain level. It is also worthwhile mentioning that the average senior manager in the private sector earns closer to R1.5-million in addition to work-related expenses. 

Which brings me to my point. Of course, the salaries of MPs are generous when you compare them with the average salary in South Africa – in fact they are about four times higher. However, we do not want average MPs and those are the ones we are getting far too often at the moment. I am also told that many, especially in single-income households, take on jobs on the side to supplement their salaries – something which should not be allowed.

I know many would argue that people work much harder in the private sector and in some cases that might be true. However, having been an MP myself and still having many friends in Parliament, I can honestly say that this is not true for the majority of MPs. 

The hours are extremely long, MPs are never off duty, and without exception, their family lives are strained by the demands of the job. I recall that during the first Parliament, 48 female MPs got divorced, which says a lot about the pressure public office puts on the representatives. All these factors are part of why many skilled people don’t want to take up public office and when they do, they usually don’t last long. 

Of course, I’m painfully aware that these salaries and benefits come from our hard-earned tax money and like all South Africans, I don’t want SARS to take any more of my income. However, I do want better-qualified and dedicated MPs to be in Parliament. 

The only way to get better bang for our buck is to reduce the size of Parliament while paying those who are there more. The Constitution states that there can be a minimum of 350 members in the National Assembly and a maximum of 400. We are, of course, currently at the maximum. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa needs a new generation of political heroes

Wouldn’t it be better to have 350 excellent MPs and pay them better? I think so. There must also be better mechanisms for choosing party candidates and for penalising those who don’t perform. 

I also hope the President will finally honour his promise to reduce the size of the Cabinet significantly. I am still at a loss as to what 28 ministers and 36 deputy ministers do – and they get serious money. 

We need super-smart, skilled and totally dedicated men and women to manage our country and we need them to stay in Parliament to build up institutional memory. If that means paying fewer of them more, I’m all for it. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    The term public servant springs to mind. Lets reduce the number of MP’s without increasing anyone’s salary too much. Maybe give them a break on tax instead. Lets have MP’s who’s ambition it is to serve the people rather than chase the money. Maybe we can get people who truly aren’t in it for the big bucks.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    What a totally ridiculous article.

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    I do not imagine anyone would resist too much on paying equitable value for services. I do not see people complaining about the money per se. It’s the lack of value for money that people are feeling aggrieved about.

    • Jacques Siebrits says:

      They are chosen by their parties. Why would the parties choose better parliamentarians if they get paid even more?

  • John Lewis says:

    You’re not going to get much sympathy for this ’cause’ when MPs are in the top 3% of earners in the country and many of them have abysmal attendance records. Compared rand salaries to US and Canadian politicians is frankly ludicrous, given the cost of living difference.

  • Joe Soap says:

    The proportional system needs to go. Need a constituency based system in which the two or three parties with the highest votes have their representatives going to parliament. Such a system would ensure a degree of proportionality but discourage the plethora of small wannabees we see at present.

  • Denise Smit says:

    What a ridiculous article. How do you get people smarter by paying them more?

  • Geoff Coles says:

    A salary package must include all benefits.. pension, medical aid, accommodation, vehicle, mobile phone, the lot..
    Melanie has distorted the information.

    • Miss Jellybean says:

      “It is also worthwhile mentioning that the average senior manager in the private sector earns closer to R1.5-million in addition to work-related expenses.” She forgot that in the private sector if a senior manager doesn’t deliver on his portfolio he gets replaced, if he doesn’t bother to pitch up for work he gets replaced, if he steals from his employer or colludes with suppliers he gets arrested & charged. MP’s keep their jobs & even get promoted instead

  • Nic Rossouw says:

    This is fine if there are checks and balances to ensure they are doing a proper job and not merely rubberstamping directives from Luthuli House. The lack of oversight as pointed out by State Capture Commission, the ramrodding of BELA and NHI without any funding for it, etc. come to mind and leaves a bitter taste. There should also be consequences for those not attending meetings and sessions, etc.

  • Deon de Wet-Roos says:

    DM wants more people to contribute to its reputed fair and unbiased reporting of the truth. I find it very difficult to see DM as a middle of the road contributor of the truth when you have people like Melanie Verwoerd commenting on issues such as MP’s salaries. Where was she born? Under a rock? Good luck finding super smart, skilled and dedicated MP’s. More luck finding a man on the moon. If DM wants me to contribute to its existence, where are comments by Roelof Botha and Kallie Kriel to name but two. They don’t have to be right wing but surely anything is better than Melanie’s world.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      You sound like that performative guy representing Israel at the the UN .. sad but true. And like their ‘sponsor’ the US .. threaten ‘funding cuts’ to try and blackmail the rest .. like the 12 Republicans (no surprise there!) who are trying to blackmail the ICC. Welcome.

      • Deon de Wet-Roos says:

        Don’t know what you’re sniffing but its not good for you. Makes you lose focus and hallucinate methinks. No, this isn’t about Israel. It is about the nonsense spewed forth by comrade Verwoerd and the request to support such dribble by DM

  • Greeff Kotzé says:

    Why would they get better simply because more money is offered? It’s not like they are appointed on merit. Rather, they are selected by their parties on a combination of popularity and horse-trading.

    Yes, it could possibly deepen the pool of candidates, but there is no guarantee.

    If you want better-performing MPs, maybe give them bonuses based on their performance in committee.

  • MT Wessels says:

    Dear Melanie, so sorry to hear how you struggled with only R50k per month disposable income. An egregious insult and disgrace; for which the unemployed masses should hang their heads in shame.
    But please, please: ask someone close to you to patiently explain the cost-of-living differences between SA, Canada and the US. That you use this reference in the dirge above tells us you should have stayed in Parliament, much less taxing on the grey matter.

  • Mel Ano says:

    Completely disagree. All MPs should earn no more than R15k a month with no benefits. They should learn what most of us in the private sector have to deal with financially. Wedo more work in a month than they do in a year..their salaries are completely undeserved.

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