Editorial: Workers hold state to ransom

The story of the “early Christmas” double salary for workers at Nkomazi local municipality in Mpumalanga is an instructive lesson on how not to govern.

Last month the cash-strapped rural municipality erroneously paid R13.6-million in salaries to its 1073 employees 10 days before their actual payday, and promptly informed workers they would not be paid on the 25th when their salaries were due.

This recovery incensed general workers, who then went about laying sabotage to the municipality by shutting off water to towns and villages in its jurisdiction and ultimately forcing management to bend and pay salaries again in the same month.

Now the municipality is contemplating deducting 20% of workers salaries for seven months to recoup the money, but even this is being rejected by workers, who regard the overpayment as a “gift”.

It is heartening that the council only has to recover something in the region of R4-million, apparently because senior managers agreed to forgo the second payment.

The council’s capitulation to pure thuggery and extortion by its employees is an example of how political considerations — in this instance for labour — trump its financial wellbeing which in turn affects on service delivery.

All this in a municipality whose adjusted budget for the previous financial year recorded a R6.5-million deficit and whose revenue for the current financial year is set at R1.26-billion — R30-million more than its expenditure for the year.

Looking at the condition of our state-owned entities, and the actions being taken to halt their decline, it is a malaise that is also manifest at the highest levels of our government.

Recent examples at Eskom saw the utility’s former chief executive Phakamani Hadebe embarrassed in 2018 when his stance of no increases for staff was overturned by Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, who announced a wage deal, but it was one that Eskom couldn’t afford. Months later the shareholder would refuse to allow Eskom to implement much-needed planned outages to do critical maintenance work on ageing coal stations.

The same sort of pandering at SAA has brought the airline to the brink, with Finance Minister Tito Mboweni refusing to budge on a request for a R2-billion cash bailout for SAA to pay salaries in this month.

In fact, Mboweni is arguing for decisive action on SAA by either placing it in business rescue or liquidation.

The airline has paid 50% of salaries to employees, as well as half of 13th cheques for those who structured their salaries in that way and took deductions throughout the year, with a promise that the rest would be paid by Monday.

Even that depends on whether Gordhan will accede to a request for a guarantee required by lenders before they advance this operational loan.

Perhaps Mboweni is tired of being held to ransom by a company that signed a wage agreement without any idea of how it would be fulfilled.

Perhaps he cannot understand an airline that, instead of acting in real ways to turn itself around, has sunk millions in expensive executive hires that have yielded no value.

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