Rob Rose Editor: Financial Mail
Cosatu, Fedusa, Saftu and Nactu joined forces to protest in Pretoria. Picture: Freddy Mavunda
Cosatu, Fedusa, Saftu and Nactu joined forces to protest in Pretoria. Picture: Freddy Mavunda

What, do you imagine, have SA’s civil servants been doing while 2.2-million private sector employees lost their jobs during the lockdown? Spent the time planning how to mitigate the damage, perhaps? Devised strategies to replace those jobs, do you think?

Well, no — it turns out that many of them were on holiday.

Over the weekend, it emerged that 684,313 public servants — more than half the 1.2-million full-time officials — were absent from work between June 1 and mid-August on full pay, at a time when South Africans needed their support more than ever.

This was revealed by public service & administration minister Senzo Mchunu, in answer to a question from the DA’s Leon Schreiber.

Perhaps the most remarkable number was that more than a fifth of all civil servants — 213,291 people — were on “sick leave” at some point during those 11 weeks, said Mchunu.

In addition, 54,972 officials took “family responsibility” leave, 72,911 people took “special leave” including study leave, and 327,836 were on vacation.

The absurdity is manifest: the private sector — in meltdown partly due to Covid-19 but more due to a decade of the government’s complacency, daft policies and inaction — is battling to scrape together enough money to survive, let alone pay enough tax so that salaries can be paid to public servants, many of whom, it now turns out, were on holiday.

This mass exodus also came at a time when many South Africans needed government support more than ever — illustrating that if you felt nobody answered the phone whenever you called any government office, it probably wasn’t a coincidence.

Schreiber said the officials went on leave “at precisely the moment that South Africans needed a capable state more desperately than ever, to deliver everything from Ters unemployment payments, to Sassa grants and emergency procurement of protective equipment”.

To be fair, there is logic in some of this: with the economy at a virtual standstill, it might have been an opportune time for some officials, if not half of them, to take their annual leave.

Still, it doesn’t explain why the number of those who were “sick” amounted to 10 times the 21,000 civil servants who’d been infected by Covid-19 by mid-July, as reported by the Mail & Guardian back then. Nor does it explain why, when SA dropped to level 2 in mid-August, the number of civil servants taking sick leave every week immediately fell by more than half.

And, to have half the civil service absent on full pay looks pretty awful at a time when the trade unions are holding nationwide protests to demand those officials all get a raise.

The war on Mboweni

Last Wednesday, four trade union federations — Cosatu, the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) — came together in an unprecedented co-ordinated protest, partly to demand that the government honours its promise to hike civil servants’ wages by 4.4% this year.

In this article by New Frame on the strike, one National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union member from KwaDwesi, Pakama Mapothi, said: “To date, the government has not given public servants their increment.”

Finance minister Tito Mboweni has argued that SA just doesn’t have the money to hike salaries. Instead, he has frozen salaries for this year, as part of his plan to trim R160bn from public sector wages over the next three years.

Schreiber points out that “government employees already received salary hikes of 66% above inflation over the past decade”.

In practice, he says, this means that 58c of every rand you pay in tax now goes to pay civil servants’ salaries, leaving very little for services like education and health care.

In fact, above-inflation wage hikes for civil servants are the reason why, as Africa Check reported, “the public wage bill more than tripled, growing from R154bn to R518bn” between 2006/2007 and 2018/2019.

This is exactly the issue Mboweni wants to address by freezing wages. But whether he can stick to his guns in the face of the onslaught from the unions remains to be seen.

Last week, Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi called on Mboweni to resign, as this report from City Press details. “What we’re saying to Comrade Tito is that this isn’t his government. SA doesn’t belong to him. Workers in this country have made him who he is by voting for the ANC,” said Losi.

And, more disturbingly for the leader of the weakened governing party, Losi threatened that unless the ANC government takes the labour federation’s concerns seriously, it will “lose our members’ support in the 2021 local government elections”.

Encouragingly, it doesn’t seem like the ANC wants Mboweni to go anywhere.

ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile told the Sunday Times over the weekend that despite Cosatu’s call, “we have confidence in Comrade Tito Mboweni … I don’t think [he] is unreasonable when he thinks some things can’t be done”.

Which of course he isn’t. But reason, as we know, is only tolerated in politics when it’s convenient to do so.

It won’t be easy, but if the ANC wants to do what’s right for the country’s economy, it’ll have to hold the line on Mboweni’s budget cuts, and face down the union threat.

This is a roundup of the best Covid-19 news from the web, brought to you in today’s FM lockdown newsletter.

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