Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has rejected claims by critics and public sector unions that National Treasury sprang plans to adjust the public service wage bill by R160.2bn in three years on employees without due warning.
The minister was addressing a joint meeting of Parliament's Standing Committee on Finance, the Standing Committee on Appropriations, a Select Committee on Finance and a Select Committee on Appropriations on Thursday afternoon.
Mboweni's briefing to MPs came after he tabled his 2020/21 Budget Speech in Parliament on Wednesday. In its Budget Review, Treasury has proposed cuts of to R37.8 billion in 2020/21, R54.9 billion in 2021/22 and R67.5 billion in 2022/23.
Unions have called the budget announcement a "declaration of war" and said Treasury's proposal to the Public Sector Coordinating Bargaining Council on Tuesday to put increases on ice was unexpected.
Mboweni said the National Treasury proposal was the outcome of long-term engagements between government and unions through mechanisms including the National Economic Development and Labour Council.
"It is incorrect to say that discussions have not been happening. There has been a multi-pronged conversation at the level of political leadership, in the alliance, with myself, with Minister [of Public Service and Administration] Senzo Mchunu, trade unions in the public services and at Nedlac," said Mboweni.
Mboweni said these meetings had been taking place on a regular basis. He said he would be updating a Nedlac meeting on Friday on the public service wage bill proposal and the Budget Speech. He used a cryptic gardening metaphor to discourage unions from discussing the issue publicly in a combative tone.
"I have a Nedlac meeting set up for tomorrow morning, to discuss, among others, this matter and the budget itself. People shouldn’t be scared when negotiations occur to ask for anything. But don’t use organic fertilisers, use organic fuel to get what you want," Mboweni said.
National Treasury director general Dondo Mogajane said it was a mischaracterisation to call National Treasury’s proposal a cut to public servants’ salaries. He stressed that these were projections that could be achieved through means that did not at all need to involve reducing salaries.
"What we are doing is slowing down the rate of growth. We are not cutting it. The increase that was last agreed on is 1.5%. It is not decreasing. There is also a view that we are in austerity. This is not austerity," said Mogajane.
During a News24 Frontline panel discussion on Thursday morning, Congress of South African Trade Unions parliamentary liaison officer Matthew Parks said the federation would engage in good faith with government but believed that Luthuli House has not been engaging meaningfully with labour on the public service wage proposals.