Politicians’ bloated wages insult the poor

If you hadn't already noticed the ever-expanding waistlines of most of our politicians – a tell-tale sign of a political class feeding feverishly at the public trough – then you might have missed the latest bulging of their other "stomach": salaries.

The Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers recommended a sliding scale of hikes, with nothing for those earning more than R1-million per year. But President Jacob Zuma ignored that and signed off on a 5% across-the-board increase for all the country’s national and provincial politicians, further cementing South Africa’s status as one of the best places in the world to be a politician. 

Zuma himself declined a pay rise, thereby avoiding a possibly bruising debate about his earnings (and perks) in Parliament, which has to approve his salary. Yet 34 ministers, 33 deputy ministers, 52 parliamentary chairpersons, 53 parliamentary whips, leaders of opposition parties, around 200 MPs, nine premiers, 90 MECs and 331 MPLs will pad their already hefty pay packages with the 5% windfall — backdated to April last year. 

Still, it is not the percentage increase — a somewhat misleading measurement, which ironically allows these politicians to claim that they are somehow getting short-changed because of the increase falling below the inflation rate — that should concentrate the focus of our gaze. It is rather the actual amount of the yearly increase and the commensurate salaries. ??

Deputy President Motlanthe gets an extra R118 000 for a R2.5-million yearly package, while ministers will receive an additional R100 000 to raise their annual salary to R2.1-million. National MPs and MPLs will have to make do with R45 000 and R43 000 yearly increases respectively, taking their corresponding annual salaries to R934 000 and R904 000.??

Local politicians have followed suit. In late January, the City of Johannesburg announced that Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Lechesa Tsenoli had approved more than R122-million in salary hikes for the city’s 230 councillors, 17 committee chairpersons, 10 mayoral committee members and the city council’s chief whip and speaker. Accordingly, councillors in this oft-claimed “world class” city will receive a R28 000 annual increase, elevating their yearly salary to R458 000, while committee chairpersons get a R39 000 hike, upping their annual salaries to just under R825 000.??

All of these pay hikes are, in formal terms, separate from the incredible array of benefits and perks enjoyed by our politicians but which are, in reality, part of the overall salary “package”. Despite repeated pleas from the treasury to rein in such “nice-to-haves”, alongside promises by the self-same politicians to practice self-restraint, Tsenoli recently approved increased monthly cellphone allowances for South Africa’s more than 10 000 local politicians of up to R3 300 for metro mayors and R1 650 for councillors.??

And, with the explosion of community protests over lack of service delivery alongside rampant corruption and mismanagement at the local government level clearly in mind, the minister further extended risk benefits to mayors and councillors that include life cover and personal security.??

Let’s put this all into a larger social perspective. According to the latest available information from Stats SA, the median wage of those South Africans fortunate enough to actually have a job stands at R2 800 per month or R33 600 per year. What this means in comparative terms is that an MP’s new pay hike is more than double the average annual salary of a worker. 

As for the lowest-paid South African politician, a local councillor, the pay hike for the Johannesburg variety is only slightly less than a worker’s median yearly wage. Almost unbelievably, even the monthly cellphone allowance of metro mayors is R500 more than what an average South African worker earns in the same period. For our politicians, talk is clearly not cheap.??

A comparison of worker and politician wage increases further confirms the huge wage gap. Worker demands for wage increases, which politicians (as well as capitalists) continually decry as excessive, have, according to the Labour Research Service, delivered an average increase since 2007 of R957 per month. Meanwhile, a quick calculation of the same average for national politicians comes in at five times that of the workers.

Whereas most media and public attention has been directed at the ever-expanding wage gap between workers and bosses in the private sector, it is clear that when it comes to politicians and workers the same “general rules” apply. What we have now in South Africa is a political class that economically stands so far above the vast majority of people it governs that it cannot be said, with any seriousness, to either identify with or represent them.??

So, when Zuma or Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande tells us that ANC/SACP politicians have an enduring commitment to redress wage inequality and are simply servants of the people, we must demand that they and their cohorts practice what they preach. When DA leader Helen Zille boasts about the DA-run Western Cape refusing the latest salary increases, we must ask her and her party why they readily accepted all previous hikes and have nothing to say about the astronomical wage gap between DA politicians and the black majority whose votes they so desperately want.

Instead of mouthing platitudes and trying to defend the indefensible, South Africa’s politicians should put into practice the words of Africa's most humble, honest and poorest politician ever, Thomas Sankara: “If we want greater justice, every one of us must recognise the real situation of the masses and see the sacrifices that must be made.” — South African Civil Society Information Service, sacsis.co.za

Dr Dale T McKinley is an independent writer, researcher, lecturer and political activist.

• An earlier version of this article included calculations of what the president would earn if he had taken the pay rise. It did not include the fact that he had declined the increase. The M&G apologises for the errors.

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