A death in the House: Parliament building in Cape Town. The suicide of a senior official at parliament has put the spotlight on job cuts in the public service. Picture: REUTERS
A death in the House: Parliament building in Cape Town. The suicide of a senior official at parliament has put the spotlight on job cuts in the public service. Picture: REUTERS

Working conditions in the public service have recently come under sharp scrutiny after a senior staffer in parliament committed suicide in protest against alleged bullying by an ANC MP.

Lennox Garane, who had been a section manager for policy in the international relations and protocol division of parliament, shot himself on September 14. In a suicide note read out during his memorial service, Garane said he killed himself in protest against 20 months of bullying.

There is mounting speculation that the government will soon embark on wholesale retrenchments as it moves to prevent its wage bill from spiralling out of control, causing anxiety among its employees. The government is the largest employer in SA and is largely responsible for the creation of a black middle class.

The public-sector wage bill, which in 2018-2019 will amount to R587bn, represents 35% of projected government expenditure of R1.67-trillion. The 2018 budget review noted that, for the state to support higher levels of capital investment, it "needs to contain the public-service wage bill, which has crowded out spending in other areas".

In August, the ANC Professionals’ League submitted to the office of the party’s secretary-general founding documents to register its intention to establish a new political instrument for professionals in SA.

"The political distance between the ANC and professionals, and the ‘side-chick’ relationship the party has maintained with this strategic layer of society, necessitates an urgent establishment of a formalised and constitutional structure within the ANC that accommodates the needs of professionals, while concurrently leveraging on their skills and expertise," it says.

Vinothan Naidoo, a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s public policy and administration programme, says the government will find it difficult to cut jobs. "I suspect it will be difficult to implement ‘wholesale’ retrenchments [including those due to public-sector union protests] without determining what effect this will have on maintaining service-delivery systems," he says.

"So any retrenchment plan would have to be informed by some kind of value for money/cost-benefit personnel audit, to determine where to cut and how … for example at what levels is the public service either under-or overstaffed; are there redundant posts, is early retirement or transfer a good option, before simply ‘cutting’ wholesale," he says.

Naidoo says President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement in his 2018 state of the nation address that government ministries and departments would be restructured might lead to a reduction or consolidation of the public service.

"Another issue which a lot of people have been concerned about is political interference in public-sector appointments, which has eroded trust and credibility in, and stunted the growth of, a professional bureaucracy where skills are taken seriously."

Public services & administration minister Ayanda Dlodlo has warned that the rising public-sector wage bill means that the government will have to cut back on critical services.

But Public Servants Association deputy general manager Tahir Maepa disagrees that the public service is bloated, pointing out that large numbers of government employees are needed to deliver services. He says there are more than 160,000 vacant positions in the public service.

The Institute of Race Relations warns that the public-sector wage bill has grown above inflation almost every year.

University of Stellenbosch Business School director Prof Piet Naudé says if downsizing does not happen any time soon, the aim should be to professionalise the public service.

"This would entail a proper and independent evaluation of how people match the qualifications required for their job function, as well as a process analysis of whether all jobs are in fact productive and required," says Naudé.

"It is true that state employees make up a significant middle-class spending power, but it comes at a huge cost to the tax base.

"It is therefore much wiser to execute two tasks at the same time: right-size and professionalise the public sector and at the same time create optimum conditions for the private sector [especially medium-size businesses] to grow the economy.

"In this manner, we create a middle class that is in fact sustainable and contribute to consumption without the tax cost," Naudé says.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za