11 February 2014

South Africa: The Wages of the High Life - SA Politicians Getting Fat Off the Public Purse


If you hadn't already noticed the ever-expanding waistlines of most of our politicians - a tell-tale sign of a political class feeding feverishly at the public trough - then you might have missed the latest bulging of their other 'stomach', salaries.

Following enabling recommendations from the 'Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers', President Zuma signed off on the most recent salary hike for the country's national and provincial politicians that further cements South Africa's status as one of the best places in the world to be a politician. As a result Zuma himself, 34 Ministers, 33 Deputy Ministers, 52 Parliamentary Chairpersons, 53 Parliamentary Whips, leaders of opposition parties, around 200 MPs, 9 Premiers, 90 MECs and 331 MPLs will pad their already hefty pay packages with another 5% windfall (backdated to April last year).

But it is not the percentage increase - a somewhat misleading measurement, which ironically allows these politicians to claim that they are somehow getting short-changed due to the increase falling below the inflation rate - which should concentrate the focus of our gaze. It is rather the actual amount of the yearly increase and the commensurate salaries.

Through this lens, we can see that President Zuma will receive a yearly increase of around R140 000, which now puts his overall salary at just under R2, 8 million a year. Deputy President Motlanthe gets an extra R118 000 for a R2, 5 million yearly package while Ministers will receive an additional R100 000 to raise their annual salary to R2, 1 million. National MPs and MPLs will have to make do with R45 000 and R43 000 yearly increases respectively, taking their corresponding annual salaries to R934 000 and R904 000.

Local politicians have followed suit. In late January the City of Johannesburg announced that Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Lechesa Tsenoli had approved over R122 million in salary hikes for the city's 230 councillors, 17 committee chairpersons, 10 mayoral committee members as well as the city council's Chief Whip and Speaker. Accordingly, councillors in this oft-claimed 'world class' city will receive a R28 000 annual increase, elevating their yearly salary to R458 000 while committee chairpersons get a R39 000 hike which ups their annual salaries to just under R825 000.

All of these pay hikes are, in formal terms, separate from the incredible array of benefits and perks enjoyed by our politicians but which are, in reality, part of the overall salary 'package'. Despite repeated warnings by the Treasury to reign-in such 'nice-to-haves' alongside promises by the self-same politicians to practice self-restraint, Minister Tsenoli recently approved increased monthly cell phone allowances for South Africa's 10 000+ local politicians of up to R3 300 for metro mayors and R1 650 for councillors.

And, with the explosion of community protests over lack of service delivery alongside rampant corruption and mismanagement at the local government level clearly in mind, the Minister further extended risk benefits to mayors and councillors that include life cover and personal security.

Let's put this all into a larger societal perspective. According to the latest available information from Stats SA, the median wage of those South Africans fortunate enough to actually have a job stands at R2800 per month orR33 600 per year. What this means in comparative terms is that President Zuma's recent pay hike is over 4 times greater than the average annual salary of a worker. As for the lowest paid South African politician, a local councillor, the pay hike for the Johannesburg variety is only slightly less than a worker's median yearly wage.

Almost unbelievably, even the monthly cell phone allowance of metro mayor's is R500 more than what an average South African worker earns in the same period. For our politicians, talk is clearly not cheap.

A comparison of worker and politician wage increases only further confirms the huge wage gap. Worker demands for wage increases, which politicians (as well as capitalists) continually decry as excessive, have, according to the Labour Research Service delivered an average increase since 2007of R957 per month. Meanwhile, a quick calculation of the same average for national politicians rings in at 5 times that of the workers.

When it comes to the global picture the wages of our top-tier politicians even beat out their colleagues from some of the world's wealthiest countries. President Zuma now earns around R1 million more than British Prime Minister David Cameron and an astounding R2milion more than French President Francois Hollande. South Africa's national Ministers edge out their British peers by a cool R300 000+ and have raced ahead of the French by almost R1 million per year. Even if by smaller differentials, our national MPs are also better paid than their British and French counterparts.

While most media and public attention over the last many years has been directed at the ever expanding wage gap between workers and bosses in the private sector, it is clear that when it comes to politicians and workers the same 'general rules' apply. What we have now in South Africa is a political class that economically stands so far above the vast majority of people it governs that it cannot be said, with any seriousness, to either identify with or represent them.

So, when President Zuma or Minister Nzimande tells us that ANC/SACP politicians have an enduring commitment to redress wage inequality and are simply servants of the people, we must demand that they and their cohorts practice what they preach. When DA leader Helen Zille boasts about the DA-run Western Cape refusing the latest salary increases, we must ask her and her party why they have readily accepted all previous hikes and have nothing to say about the astronomical wage gap between DA politicians and the black majority that they so desperately want to vote for them.

Instead of mouthing platitudes and trying to defend the indefensible, South Africa's politicians should put into practice the words of Africa's most humble, honest and poorest politician ever, Thomas Sankara: "If we want greater justice, every one of us must recognise the real situation of the masses and see the sacrifices that must be made."

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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