We are overpaying our Ministers in government

2014-06-04 11:34

To the detriment of citizens, South African politicians are obsessed about the materialistic gains that come with being in high positions such as being a Minister, Premier, Deputy Minister or even an MEC. There is no visible desire towards being agents of change. The chase is to get more pomposity, to balloon the benefits of these politicians and ultimately to cash in on taxpayers’ money and receive a cushy pension that could make one a millionaire till death.

Maybe, as citizens, we would not mind all these fruits being harvested by the politicians if we had no doubt in our minds that they are doing the best to serve this country. The biggest tragedy is to see some Ministers who have been serial failures, like Lulu Xingwana, going home to live a comfortable life at the expense of citizens while she has failed to lead properly in any department that she has presided over as a Minister. It seems once people have been used to certain prestige, they find it difficult to readjust. The office of the ANC chief whip in the National Assembly decried this chase for cushy pensions as a loss of institutional memory and experience for the ANC – as former Ministers continued to resign.

An article, ‘Axed ministers cash in by dropping out’, in the Business Day provided insight to this. Apparently, a “minister with 15 years’ service would get a gratuity equal to one year’s salary, or about R2.2m, while an MP with similar service would get R900 000”. Clearly, it is better to resign as ‘former’ Minister than an ordinary MP as your pension is calculated on your final salary earned. The bulk of the pension contributions (32.5%) are paid for by the state and the individual Member of Parliament (MP) pays a meager amount (7.25%).

The Democratic Alliance MP, Dion George, who is a trustee of the pension fund, indicated that “the generous contributions to pensions by the state was compensation for the volatility of the job where from one term to the next an elected public representative could lose his or her job.” Would it not be wonderful if all jobs came with such fantastic pension/retirement annuity funds contributions by the employer? What makes these public REPRESENTATIVES so special? Is it tasks performed while in office? Their success rate? Their generosity to share their pension with the needy? Something is amiss here.

Let us draw a hypothetical scenario: The ANC gets 45% of the national vote in 2019 and an opposition coalition government leads South Africa. Essentially, this would mean that the ANC has 180 seats in the National Assembly. Given that Zuma has a team of 71 made up of 35 Ministers and 36 Deputy Ministers, does it mean all of them in 2019 would rush hour to their pension thus see the ANC lose 71 senior MPs? Such exodus would cripple the ANC into political oblivion in parliament, whilst on the other hand it could be an interesting moment to have fresh blood come through to parliament and rescue the would be sinking ship. Let us close the hypothetical scenario.

When travelling the United Kingdom last December, I visited the House of Commons and met the South African born Peter Hain, of the Labour Party, who was in cabinet under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Today he is a backbencher as the UK is now led by a coalition of the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats. In conversation with him, I got the feeling that even as an opposition member in the House of Commons he still sees a space to contribute to his nation.

Perhaps the ability to adjust is also important. I must commend Paul Mashatile and Ben Martins for indicating that they will not be resigning from parliament despite not being reappointed as Ministers. That is the kind of mentality needed in our politics – be committed to service people and not cash in.

A lesson to be learnt is that inequality in our society has infiltrated itself to public service. The lavish lifestyle we fund for Ministers and their deputies is as unnecessary as it is unsustainable. Rumour has it that cabinet will now cost over R1-billion, to oil its expensive appetite of opulence. It is ridiculous that such an amount is spent just on 71 people per annum; this highlights the gross inequality that is embedded in our society. The argument is that professionals in the public service are paid high salaries in order to retain them as they are also sought after by the private sector.

However, occupancy of political governance office such as being a Minister or Deputy Minister is already payment on its own as you are given the opportunity to design the strategic direction of the country. Occupying such office should never mean an opportunity to amass pension. As a result, I am persuaded to believe that one of the solutions to this is to decrease the disparities between the remuneration packages of Ministers, Deputy Ministers and Members of Parliament.

This was the driving logic in 2013 when the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers proposed a sliding scale when public salary hikes are considered. The commission had proposed that public office bearers earning above R1-million should not enjoy pay hikes for 2013. Zuma’s wisdom rejected this proposal, which was aimed at reducing the inequality gap amongst salaries of public servants such as the gap between Ministers and ordinary MPs, even though ours is a parliamentary executive.

We therefore cannot have government shouting for a need to narrow the income gap in the private sector when government and public institutions fail to lead by example. The equality I propose must not be achieved by seeking to lift the remuneration package of ordinary MPs; the inequality must be eradicated by narrowing down the benefits and remuneration packages of both Ministers and Deputy Ministers.

President Jose Mujica of Uruguay, known as the world’s ‘poorest’ president, has shown the world that it is possible for a president to live a modest life and still be able to govern a country. Mujica turned the presidential palace into an orphanage home and he refused to part with his old VW Beetle for travel. This desire, in South Africa, to drain the public purse by putting up with endless desires of wealth by politicians is immoral. Once attainment of political office becomes an extension of wealth accumulation, the culture of service ceases to exist. When politicians jostle for public office, it becomes less about the country and more about their personal bank balances. There is no way a nation can be built when those who govern are obsessed about themselves and not the citizens.

The last problem with our MPs in general is that most of them see themselves unemployable beyond the MP jobs they hold. It seems once a person has become a Minister they become larger than life and cannot go back into a professional career. If the thinking were that any person who ceases to be a Minister or an ordinary MP while still below 65 could go into a career, perhaps the state would not cough up so much money in pensions for MPs. We need public officials that are skilled, knowledgeable and committed to service. The thought that being a ‘radical’ politician, that swears and disrespects people to protect the governing party, is a ticket to cabinet is disastrous and unacceptable.

South Africans must stop overpaying the cabinet and furthermore they must demand individuals committed to public service to occupy those offices.

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