Trimming: In his state of the nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: ‘It is critical that the structure and size of the state is optimally suited to meet the needs of the people.’ Picture: NGIZOZO JIYANE, GCIS
Trimming: In his state of the nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: ‘It is critical that the structure and size of the state is optimally suited to meet the needs of the people.’ Picture: NGIZOZO JIYANE, GCIS

Cosatu, the biggest trade union federation in SA, on Sunday welcomed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s promise of a more efficient government but said any cuts should be made to the bloated Cabinet and senior administrative jobs rather than frontline positions.

It also called for an end to the culture of cadre deployment, in which plum jobs are landed by political loyalists, saying it wanted to see senior government positions going to people who had proved themselves lower down the ranks.

Cosatu’s comments come days before the budget presentation on Wednesday.

Among the challenges confronting the Treasury is the government’s soaring wage bill, which has forced provinces to run up huge debts to keep services running. In the October medium-term budget policy statement, the Treasury said that staff compensation, particularly among teachers and nurses, was the key driver of provincial overexpenditure.

During his state of the nation address on Friday, Ramaphosa signalled a leaner government was on the cards. "We will initiate a process to review the configuration‚ number and size of national government departments," he said.

Cosatu spokesman Sizwe Pamla said the wage bill analysis published by the Treasury in October was flawed as it did not expose the generous compensation packages provided to traditional leaders, councillors, MPs and the judiciary. "It’s not frontline staff who are the problem. It is higher-paid civil servants. They should be tightening their belts," he said.

"We need more police on the streets, rather than generals sitting in offices," he said.

The Treasury’s data showed compensation per employee had risen steadily since 2008-09, driving up the wage bill and commanding an ever-increasing proportion of budget allocations. Teachers and nurses accounted for a large part of this growth, with their remuneration outpacing inflation by, on average, more than two percentage points for the past seven years, according to the Treasury.

Pamla said Ramaphosa could do worse than take a leaf out of China’s book, and institute a culture in which public servants had to gain hands-on managerial experience as mayors or governors before they assumed top government positions.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), two of Cosatu’s biggest affiliates, agreed with the union federation.

Nehawu spokesman Khaya Xaba said understaffing posed a danger to service delivery and workers from collapsed departments should be integrated into existing departments.

"The reason we have austerity measures is because most state resources have been looted by the Guptas and their cronies through the capture project. Those who have looted the state must return the money.

"Billions looted from the state and state-owned enterprises could ... pay better salaries for public servants," he said.

Sadtu said it approved of Ramaphosa’s promise to review the size of the government but sounded a note of caution over the job security of rank-and-file public servants, saying austerity measures were already making it hard for frontline staff to do their jobs properly.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za 

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