President Jacob Zuma announced on Thursday that directors general had endorsed the proposal of a salary freeze for a year, but the Mail & Guardian has it on good authority that some top government managers have rejected this proposal and a final decision is still pending.
Zuma told Parliament that in the spirit of making a statement against inequality, as proposed by his recent social dialogue, the Cabinet had committed to a salary freeze for the next 12 months for ministers and deputy ministers.
He said that the Forum of South African Directors General had in turn endorsed the call for a salary freeze for directors general.
"We now await the processes of consultation within the private sector regarding its executive salaries," he said.
But sources have told the M&G that senior government managers have rejected Zuma's call to freeze their salaries.
Responding to intense labour unrest, Zuma last month revealed a wide-ranging plan that included the proposal to freeze salaries of senior executives in both the public and private sectors for 12 months.
Following a high-level meeting between the government, business and organised labour, Zuma announced that the parties were making the call "as a strong signal of a commitment to build an equitable economy".
"They call for an informed national conversation on income inequalities and how best to address them," said Zuma at the time.
But this week, four sources said that directors general, the most senior government employees, had rejected this proposal at a meeting their forum held last week with Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu.
Sources said the senior managers had formed a united front, raising the issue of their own financial commitments and saying "you can't wake up and decide to freeze people's salaries".
"They said that when you want to address issues of the economy, you don't deincentivise your capacity or your skills base to resolve the problem.
"If the economy is stagnating, the approach of freezing salaries is not going to resolve that," Sisulu was allegedly told.
The managers had instead threatened to obtain a legal opinion on the matter, said two of the sources.
The senior executives allegedly said they did not mind losing their performance bonuses, because they were uncertain about receiving them in any event.
Opponents of Zuma's proposal
Sources said a second round of talks had been scheduled because there was no consensus on the matter. It was not clear whether they had been held already or were still to take place.
Statistician general Pali Lehohla and South African Revenue Service (Sars) Commissioner Oupa Magashula were mentioned as the most vocal opponents of Zuma's proposal.
Lehohla, who sent an SMS to the M&G from the Republic of Korea on Thursday, said he did not want to comment on the matter.
But he added: "When the financial crisis of 2008 descended, the management of Statistics South Africa implemented a bonus freeze for all senior managers.
"I do not know who else did then. I will always support a good cause and one on solidarity today is such a call," he said.
He later called the M&G to say he was not aware of the contents of that meeting being made a public matter. "I really am not aware of the discussions being shared," he said repeatedly.
Sars spokesperson Adrian Lackay, speaking on behalf of Magashula, said the information provided to the M&G by unnamed sources was incorrect. "Apart from that, the Mail & Guardian cannot expect Sars to make public comments or pronouncements about discussions held in a closed forum among directors general and a Cabinet minister. In Sars's view, such an expectation is unreasonable," said Lackay.
Sisulu's spokesperson, Ndivhuwo Mabaya, confirmed that the minister had met the forum's members and a number of issues had been discussed, among them the issue of freezing salaries. "As normal, the contents of this meeting are confidential and remain [so] for those who attended."
Mabaya said Sisulu had also been visiting the provinces "to assist premiers to resolve their human resources, structure or organogram challenges".
Zuma's spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, played down any potential difficulties awaiting the government. "This matter is being dealt with as it is a symbolic step for us to recognise the growing inequalities of our society."
He said it should be expected that some individuals in both the public and private sectors would disagree with the move.
"It is an ongoing agreement that could run into problems. I am sure that negative and positive comments will both come into play and be taken into account."
Cosatu president Sdumo 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 is that simple," Dlamini said. – Additional reporting by Nickolaus Bauer