While Cosatu has supported President Jacob Zuma's idea of a pay freeze, many senior executives need more convincing after Zuma's own 5.5% increase.
Last week, Zuma encouraged senior executives in the public and private sectors to freeze their salaries as a "signal of a commitment to guide an equitable economy".
But initial indications are that government will face a tough time convincing senior public servants to agree to the year-long halt on salary increases, especially after the president himself received a 5.5% pay increase to his over R2-million salary in September.
"I don’t think it is fair to expect us at this level to be saying no to increases and bonuses. I do a lot of work and I am paid – I deserve it," a government department deputy director general told the Mail & Guardian on Sunday on condition of anonymity.
"How can they make us do it? We never [agreed] to a pay freeze," the source said. The source would not rule out fighting the attempt at a pay freeze in the labour court.
When quizzed about the implementation of the cost-cutting measure, Zuma's spokesperson Mac Maharaj played down any potential difficulties awaiting government.
"This matter is being dealt with as it is a symbolic step for us to recognise the growing inequalities of our society," Maharaj said.
Disagreement to be expected
Maharaj said it should be expected that some individuals in both the public and private sectors would disagree with the move.
"It’s an ongoing agreement that could run into problems. I'm sure both negative and positive comments will both come into play and be taken into account," he said.
Exact details of how the initiative would be rolled out are still unclear as government is yet to provide details.
Acting government spokesperson Phumla Williams said the "issue is being addressed", and referred all additional queries on the matter to the department of public service and administration – the department responsible for administering civil servants salaries.
Ndivhuwo Wa Ha Mabaya, spokesperson for Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, was also mum on the government's approach to enact the pay freeze for executives in the public sector.
"We will comment at a later stage. For now we are not saying anything," Mabaya told the M&G.
Besides the possibility of senior civil servants rejecting the plan, there are indications the implementation of the pay freeze could be complicated by the recently signed three-year wage agreement between government employees and the department.
'The plight of the poor'
Even though government could run into problems in rolling out the initiative, both the ANC and tripartite alliance labour partner Cosatu have hailed the move.
"We support the call of the president," ANC spokesperson Keith Khoza told the M&G.
"We must be concerned with the plight of the poor and must demonstrate a willingness to show solidarity with them."
Cosatu's president S'dumo Dlamini said public servants "should do the right thing" and heed the call for a pay freeze.
"If the mandate comes from the president, there should be no negotiation – they must all listen and follow the call. They have to – it's that simple," Dlamini told the M&G.
But Cosatu-affiliated public sector union National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) have criticised the plan.
"We as Nehawu think the president should be setting an example for his citizens when he calls for belt-tightening," said spokesperson Sizwe Pamla.
"If the president had rejected his own pay increase, maybe then he could tell us what to do," said Pamla.