Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

As South Africans buckle under the pressure of job losses and salary cuts, and the fiscus bleeds at every level, increases for municipal employees and public office-bearers are under the spotlight. It is the start of the financial year for municipalities and budgets have been prepared and tabled for debate in council.

When it comes to municipal employees who are part of the bargaining unit under the SA Local Government Bargaining Council, there is an agreement in place that awards them a consumer price index (CPI) plus 1.5% increase. In a similar way to how public servants at national and provincial level have secured above-inflation increases, so have municipal workers.

The National Treasury did write to municipalities urging them to seek exemption from the agreement, which it appears none have decided to do. The City of Cape Town says it has asked the SA Local Government Association (Salga) to look into renegotiating the agreement.

To some extent the unwillingness to rock the labour boat right now is understandable. There is an argument to be made that in the midst of a pandemic is not the time to freeze the salaries of the lower-paid municipal workers. Among them are those who carry out essential services, such as waste removal, water and electricity reticulation, as well as primary health services at municipal clinics. Further disruptions to these services cannot be tolerated now.

But what public representatives have also done is extend a similar-sized increase to senior management and pencil in an above-CPI increase for themselves. The size of the increase for public office-bearers is not determined by the councils themselves but, as is the case of all public representatives, by the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office-Bearers.

When the time comes, Dlamini-Zuma must follow the president’s example and decline to implement any increase at all

In the case of local government, this is then promulgated by minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

The increase for 2020 has not yet been determined. The increase for 2019 was 4% and was promulgated so late that councillors are only getting their back pay now. We are yet to see what the commission and the minister will decide to do for 2020. The commission’s input are recommendations and do not have to be followed.

In February, President Cyril Ramaphosa ignored the commission’s recommendation for increases for cabinet ministers. While it had suggested 3%, he decided they should receive nothing. MPs, who the commission said should get 4%, got 2.8%.

As municipal budgets must be tabled, councils have gone ahead and penciled in the increase. Cape Town has penciled in a 5.5% increase; the City of Johannesburg 6.4%.

By no possible measure are these increases justifiable. When the time comes, Dlamini-Zuma must follow the president’s example and decline to implement any increase at all.

This financial year, municipalities will find themselves with less money to spend. Ratepayers have experienced income losses and a sizeable number of small businesses have folded, slashing revenue from taxes. Transfers to local government via conditional grants have also been slashed following the re-jig of the national budget.

While some R20bn of additional funding for municipalities is made available through the government’s Covid-19 social support package, this is earmarked for the urgent provision of water to communities that need it now more than ever.

Local government performance has deteriorated further judging by the yardstick of financial accountability and prudence. The auditor-general’s report for 2018/2019, which was published last week, found an astonishing R32bn in irregular expenditure. This includes payment for goods never received, assets not safeguarded from theft or vandalism, and unfair procurement leading to overpricing.

When Ramaphosa and his cabinet made a commitment two months ago to donate a third of their salaries to the Solidarity Fund, Salga responded, saying that councillors would donate their annual increase for 2019 to the Solidarity Fund for three months.

Ordinary councillors are not full-time employees and spend only a portion of their time on council work. However, office-bearers, such as mayors and mayoral executive members, are well paid. Executive mayors receive R1.3m and executive members more than a R1m a year. Given the state of public finances and the state of local government there is definitely no need to pay them more.

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