Public Service Minister Lindiwe Sisulu says South Africa can't afford a strike - but it can't afford to increase its wage offer to unions either.
The newly appointed minister of public service and administration on Tuesday called for unions to return to negotiations after a breakdown in the latest government wage talks.
“I want make this message clear: We can’t afford a strike. Labour must come back to the table, they won’t find a person with horns as the media has portrayed me,” Sisulu told reporters in Pretoria.
Wage talks between public sector unions and government broke down last week following protracted negotiations over salary increases for civil servants.
While saying negotiations were the only way forward, Sisulu remained resolute that government could not afford an improved offer.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), representing 14 state unions in the negotiations, is demanding an 8% annual raise and a housing allowance of R1 500, with government offering 6.5% and R900 in return.
The department of finance made provisions for a 5% increase for public servants in the February budget, and says the government cannot afford any more than is already being offered without other state programmes being adversely affected.
Sisulu explained that the current offer government equated to a R30-billion burden on the fiscus.
Accordingly Sisulu said unions and government had a responsibility to “find each other”.
“As you all know, we live in difficult times. We have all been called upon to tighten our belts and we are already offering way more than we budgeted for,” she added.
Sisulu enters the fray at a difficult time, with unions not ruling out strike action to secure their demands, while economists warn that any significant public sector industrial action would cause untold damage to the economy.
Responding to speculation that her steely demeanour and track record of being hard on unions would hamper state wage negotiations, Sisulu said she would approach negotiations in a non-aggressive manner.
“If you are asking me if I am going to put a gun to labour’s head, then: No. I left all my guns behind at [the department of] defence. I guarantee that when labour sees we are in a financial crisis, they will come around. They are reasonable people,” she said.
But, history counts against her, as Sisulu was accused of employing hostile tactics towards unions in 2009, when she fired 1 300 striking soldiers after they downed tools in protest against poor living conditions.
Sisulu also went on to neutralise the influence of the defence unions when she established the military ombud’s office.
However, she claimed the situation was “vastly different” in the military.
“In the military it’s a question of discipline. You will not find a country in the world where they allow their armies to go on strike; in South Africa it is no different,” Sisulu said.
Sisulu also dismissed accusations that her move from defence to public service was a demotion, claiming “nothing could be further from the truth”.
“I am extremely honoured to be given that challenge to improve the public service,” Sisulu said. “In the 20 years of our democracy, it has often been the main stumbling block to providing service delivery. I was put here to change that.”