Public Servants Association members demand higher wages during a march in Johannesburg. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
Public Servants Association members demand higher wages during a march in Johannesburg. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

That sound you hear is the rattling of sabres on the left of the ANC, which has been grumbling incessantly since finance minister Tito Mboweni presented his budget last week. The complaints are many, and some have substance — the increases for grants really are paltry, and do nothing to mitigate runaway job losses and poverty.

But the call to hike the salaries of public officials, such as teachers, at a rate exceeding inflation indicates that the trade unions are wholly disconnected from SA’s fiscal reality.

As Stellenbosch University’s Nic Spaull wrote in the FM last week, the average teacher in SA is paid R42,700 a month. This reflects the fact that between 2008 and 2019, teacher wages grew by 9.2% a year, while inflation averaged 6.3% a year.

So, what SA doesn’t need right now, given its limited wiggle room, is higher pay for teachers. We need more money for textbooks and services. And we need the money we spend to have a better impact on education outcomes.

Public sector trade unions don’t seem to recognise this at all. This week, they asked for an increase equal to the consumer price index plus 4%.

It is, of course, a starting point for negotiations. But the government’s credibility is on the line. Having presented an impressive budget, with tough compromises, Mboweni can’t retrace his steps.

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