Who is really responsible for the economic mess

Posted on November 17, 2019


That tired old chorus about union wreckers and greedy workers is about to get fully underway again. It always does whenever governments embark on austerity measures and inform “the nation” that we are all in the same boat; that we all need to ”pull together” to salvage “our economy”.

When organised labour disputes this, the result, invariably, is a cacophony of abuse from the business sector that is all too often repeated — even magnified — at a governmental level. Workers, especially those in relatively secure, full-time employment are portrayed as greedy, selfish and — horror of horrors — unpatriotic.

The focus is also directed to the vast army of the unemployed and to the poorest of the desperately poor. Cynically — and sickeningly — we are told, especially by the free market lobby, that it is the selfishness of organised labour that condemns these men, women and children to the horrific conditions they have to endure.

But, as unions across the board continue to point out, it is neither they nor workers in the public and private sectors who made the policies and created the conditions for a debt trap, for wholesale corruption and the syphoning off of billions to a tiny elite. South Africa’s economy has grown and so too has the obscene wealth of the few at the expense of the many.

Currently, the concentration on austerity is on the public sector, with finance minister Tito Mboweni committed to cutting the government’s wage bill by R150 billion over the next three years. In what amounts to an absurd generalisation, the public sector is said to be “bloated” and overpaid.

While this certainly applies to the cabinet and to various upper levels of the administration, it certainly does not apply, either in terms of staffing or wages to, for example, nurses or any of a range of essential health care professionals. Even those effectively outsourced firefighters who risk their lives battling veld and forest blazes, do so at little more than R3 000 a month.

Mboweni’s cost-cutting promise also comes at the time when government justifies the grotesque payments to top officials as “market related`”. There was a classic example last week when communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams announced that there was nothing amiss in SABC chief executive, Madoda Mxakwe being paid R3.9 million for nine months work. This was “market related”.

Presumably, the same applies to her own pay and to that of her colleagues in one of the world’s most inflated administrations. They each SAreceive a basic income of more than R2.4 million a year, but that hefty pay packet comes with a range of expensive benefits, covering everything from free air fares, expense accounts, car allowances and even payment for domestic service. Ministers also get a upmarket free home in either Cape Town or Pretoria. But their second home, in either city, has to be rented at a “market related” price.

However, “market related” is obviously a flexible term, since, according to the calculations available from government, the amount of rent is based on a formula that means a minister pays little more than R2 000 a month. This is a country where a nurse, working at a city hospital in Cape Ton has to pay R2 800 for a single room over a fish and chip shop to be able to be close enough to walk to work.

Since the majority of those in government profess to be religious and Christian, it might be well to remind them of a Biblical passage: “Why behold the mote in thy brother’s eye and not the beam that is in thine own?