Faith Muthambi. File Photo: IOL
JOHANNESBURG – Former Public Service and Administration Minister Faith Muthambi last year told a parliamentary portfolio committee that she did not understand why people were fussing about her hiring friends and relatives in the department.

She swore by whatever was most sacred to her that she saw nothing wrong with bringing in new entrants to the fiscus, as this was done by the book.

While the ministerial handbook allowed her to hire 10 people and two advisers to fulfil various positions, Muthambi brought in 27 support staffers.

And when horrified MPs wanted to know the justification for such blatant disregard of the law, Muthambi told them to take a hike.

In her mind, she was creating employment for friends and relatives who would otherwise be left to live outside the country’s economic mainstream.

Except that her attempts at helping the country to address the rampant unemployment that now stands at 27.2 percent was part of a larger network of a patronage that bludgeoned the fiscus to the ground.

And like erstwhile Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane, who opened the doors to the Guptas, Muthambi could afford to give Parliament the middle finger and misrepresent government positions anyhow she liked.

To her instructions from the ruling party’s national executive and parliamentary caucus were necessary irritants she could afford to ignore.

For as long as she had the backing of the country’s highest office behind her, she could do as she pleased, knowing that any hostility towards her could be a career limiting move for ambitious MPs.

In a way, Muthambi was not quite wrong.

Scheme to get rich

In the past ten years, Parliament has become the easiest and quickest scheme to get rich.

This has raised the country’s civil service wage bill to balloon to proportions never seen since 1994.

Investors and international ratings agencies have raised flags on how the country’s Cabinet has grown from late president Nelson Mandela’s 28 ministers and 14 deputies to the former president Jacob Zuma’s 38 cabinet ministers with 37 deputies.

This at the time when the economic output had shrunk from more than 5percent during former president Thabo Mbeki’s reign to roughly 0.5percent today.

And the increase is not at the bottom end of the rung.

It is mostly common in the middle and higher levels of the national, provincial and local governments.

Even opposition parties are practising it in areas where they govern.

These extensions bring in new offices that need deputies, secretaries and other functionaries that - for all intents and purposes - hardly add any value to the government’s development programmes.

At local government level, new positions are created each day to make sure that mayors’ and municipal managers’ cronies have jobs.

Even the most dysfunctional South African municipalities have mayors and municipal managers being paid six figure salaries, driving the latest and sleekest German sedans.

When people like former co-operative governance minister Des van Rooyen see nothing wrong with taking instructions from the Saxonwold compound on who they should appoint in their departments, it is a cause of concern, because efficient and hard-working civil servants in these positions are rendered, in the words of government spokesperson Phumla Williams, useless and redundant.

Most only spend a few hours in the office each day, just so that they can be guaranteed a pay cheque at the end of the month.

Collect revenue

Retired Judge Robert Nugent has already heard how the ability of the SA Revenue Service to collect revenue was curtailed after now suspended commissioner Tom Moyane brought in his acolytes to break what was once a well oiled machine that was the envy of many international tax collectors. The list is endless.

Greece collapsed, because its civil service was out of touch with its economic realities.

That is why it was refreshing for Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to bring us back to reality.

Mboweni last week told us something we had long known: that patronage was simply not sustainable.

He told the annual Professor Kader Asmal memorial lecture that the public sector wage bill had become a serious drain on the fiscus with R8 out of every R10 going to service the salaries of civil servants.

Only R2 is left to deliver on government’s priority areas of health, education, safety and infrastructure.

Small wonder the country is so awash with violent service delivery protests.

The masses, long regarded by politicians as simple, are no longer stupid.

They have begun to ask why such largesse is not extended to trickle down to millions of lower level workers.

They have become aware that their hopes for a better life are arrested at the middle and senior management of governance.

They know that their government spends billions on the public salaries wage bill each year.

If the government is serious about reducing the size of the civil service, it needs to start by deciding on whether a country the size of South Africa really needs so many Cabinet ministers and deputies.

It should also interrogate whether the output it gets from its departments is compatible with the number of people in their employ.

And whether entities that have gone past their sell-by date like Eskom really need the workers they have.

That way investors and ratings agencies will see us as a country that is serious about turning around its fortunes.

As Mboweni put it, the ANC-led government is not unaware of all these realities.

It just needs a better reorganisation to appreciate them.

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