About 42 000 nurses’ jobs are going begging in South Africa — and the trade unions blame government’s macro-economic strategy, Gear, for the critical staff shortage.
Among the union demands, in this year’s acrimonious pay talks, has been the filling of all vacancies in the public service, which is estimated at 35%. Public service director-general Richard Levin told a media briefing last November that according to the government’s salary system, Persal, there are 320 000 vacancies in the state sector.
Levin added that most of the vacancies were unfunded, given that 97,8% of the personnel budget was spent each year.
Government officials say administrators often create new positions, but fail to destroy old, unfilled positions. Levin said the vacant posts would have to be abolished to reflect the true vacancy picture.
Vacancies are particularly acute in healthcare. The Western Cape department of health said in April this year that it only had 214 nurses in Cape Town clinics and needed 468 more. Government admits a 15% vacancy rate in the province.
A study by the labour think-tank Naledi found there was a 30% staff shortage at Gauteng’s Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital.
Nehawu general-secretary Fikile Majola blamed Gear for the high level of vacancies, as it had forced the state to shrink personnel expenditure to create a ‘slim public serviceâ€. A health departmen employee conceded that it was hard to attract clinical nurses because of poor salaries, working conditions and security.
Majola said the government had revised its approach in 2000 by setting out to build a stronger state. However, departments lacked the budget to fill their now significant vacancies.
In his 2007 budget speech, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel said the state would increase nurses’ salaries by R4,6-billion over the next three years and would hire an additional 30 000 healthcare workers. He also promised R8,1-billion to employ more people in education.
Public Service and Administration Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi told the South African Local Government Association (Salga) this year that skills shortages hampered the government’s efforts to fill vacancies, and that it had to compete with the private sector or offers for skilled personnel overseas.
This was one of the reasons why government has started to consider reviewing salary packages for certain categories of employees, she said.
Independent policy analyst Ebrahim Khalil-Hassen stressed that public service employment had a key role in meeting the government’s aim of halving joblessness by 2014.
This could be done through initiatives under discussion such as public service internships for high school graduates. Other labour-absorbing programmes could focus on early childhood development and home-based HIV/Aids care.
Khalil-Hassen pointed out that most public servants were on the ‘front line of service deliveryâ€, with only about 200 000 civil servants in senior ‘pen-pushingâ€ posts of deputy director and above.