Public sector squeeze has begun

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni expressed concern in his medium-term budget speech about the large number of government departments, an issue President Cyril Ramaphosa has previously raised. (Sumaya Hisham/Reuters)

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni expressed concern in his medium-term budget speech about the large number of government departments, an issue President Cyril Ramaphosa has previously raised. (Sumaya Hisham/Reuters)

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration will not fill vacancies for directors general or extend the contracts of others until the conclusion of a process that will lead to a much leaner Cabinet after the 2019 general elections.

This is in line with the government’s efforts to reduce the high wage bill and improve efficiency in the state.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni this week expressed concern about the ballooning public sector wage bill and said the treasury would no longer allocate more money for public servants’ salaries, despite the government’s agreement with labour unions early this year to increase them by more than R20-billion in the next three years.

The current public service wage bill is R546-billion a year, which is equivalent to 35.2% of all government spending.

The Mail & Guardian reported in August that the government was planning to lay off 30 000 public servants in the next three years to cut costs. Spearheaded by the treasury, the planned restructuring of the government, which would include voluntary severance packages, would reduce the government salary bill by R20-billion.

Two senior government officials, who asked to remain anonymous, said this week that steps to get rid of senior public servants, including directors general (DGs), were being taken as part of the broader plan to cut the wage bill.

“What’s happening is that, since the president spoke about the configuration of the Cabinet, there’s no new DG that has been appointed. And there is no DG whose contract has been extended.
If there is a DG whose contract is going to expire before elections, that contract won’t be extended or renewed,” one of the officials said. “The reason is because of this process of reconfiguration because we can’t have more DGs than the departments after the reconfiguration process. So, to avoid that, you don’t appoint new DGs and not renew their contracts.”

Currently, there are 15 director general vacancies, including those in the departments of home affairs, social development and women.

“The process of reconfiguration is serious. It’s silently under way. My understanding is that this is the decision of Cabinet. They [the Cabinet] are appointing DDGs [deputy directors generals] but not DGs,” said one official.

There are 44 departments and 34 ministries, and discussions are being held to form mega-departments that will absorb the roles of departments that are to be shed. One is the department of planning, monitoring and evaluation, which government officials said would possibly be moved from the presidency into the public service and administration department.

A director general, who asked not to be named, this week warned that the reconfiguration could cost the government valuable skills.

“There are a number of departments I think we can cut. But there will be a huge impact on the administrative capacity and strategic capacity of the state. That must not be compromised. It’s going to be a fine balancing act.

“You already have some departments with two DGs. Co-operative governance and traditional affairs has a DG for traditional affairs and another one for co-operative governance. You don’t need too many deputy ministers,” the director general said.

But ministry of public service and administration (MPSA) spokesperson Mava Scott said the department was not aware of the decision not to hire new directors general.

“The responsibility and authority to manage career incidents of DGs rests with the president. Our role as the MPSA is to facilitate and advise on the process of appointment after selection has been done. So we are unable to confirm such a decision,” said Scott.

Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Khusela Diko was unavailable for comment.

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo is the political editor of the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003 and has won numerous awards since then, including the regional award for Vodacom Journalist of the Year in the economics and finance category in 2015, SA Journalist of the Year in 2011, the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the Year award in 2008 and CNN African Journalist of the Year – MKO Abiola Print Journalism in 2004. Read more from Matuma Letsoalo

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