The Star present a birthday cake to President Jacob Zuma who turned 70yrs old today. Picture: Antoine de Ras,.12/04/2012

In raising pay already excessive against independent counsel, Zuma undermines our constitution, writes Helen Zille.

Within a context of rampant corruption, the recent round of salary increases for senior public servants – which was against the recommendation of the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers – hardly warranted a mention in the media. Yet there are crucial issues of principle at play.

The commission exists for an important reason: to avoid the conflict of interest that would arise should politicians determine their own salaries. Even though President Jacob Zuma makes the final legal determination, we believe it undermines the spirit of the constitution to ignore the commission’s recommendations.

Late last year, December 19, the commission recommended the total remuneration of people earning below R500 000 per year be increased by 7 percent, while those earning between R500 000 and R800 000 get 5 percent increases. Those earning between R800 000 and R1 million per annum should get an increase of 4 percent. Those earning above R1m should not get an increase.

This sliding scale seemed perfectly logical and appropriate in a context where we are trying to tackle extreme inequality. But whatever one may think of the proposal, I believe it is incumbent on Zuma to accept it, in order to avoid the “conflict of interest” trap.

He rejected it, opting instead for a 5 percent “across-the-board” increase. This equates to an estimated additional cost to the taxpayer of R45m for top politicians. He, however, announced he would forego the increase. This gesture does not enable him to escape his conflict of interest problem, because he has, against the commission’s advice, remunerated the insider network that keeps him in power. The unspoken deal is: they look after him and he looks after them.

Fortunately, the constitution requires premiers to consider the commission’s recommendations and make a determination for provinces.

The DA believes that independent commissions have a mandate to fulfil. The Western Cape cabinet, therefore, at its January 23 meeting, accepted the commission’s recommendation that office bearings earning over R1m a year should get no increase. This unanimous decision took a minute to make. A simple matter. But as usual, in government, complications followed.

Legally, the process should work like this: the national government must give provincial premiers 30 days after the president’s proclamation to make a determination for office bearers in their provinces. That period ends on February 7. But long before this period had lapsed, and without consultation, the national government implemented Zuma’s proclaimed salary increases across all provinces. Our view was not taken into account or even sought as required by law. We now have to reverse the payments, a complex, difficult and expensive process.

Zuma simply refuses to allow our constitutional checks and balances to operate. He believes that powerful politicians should dictate to them, not the other way around. The essence of democracy is not the concentration of power in political leadership.

The essence of democracy lies in independent and strong institutions that prevent power abuse. The Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers should be such an institution. By rejecting its recommendations, Zuma is continuing his well-established habit of gutting independent institutions, from the National Prosecuting Authority to the Judicial Service Commission, so that he can wield unfettered power.

That is the point that advocate Glynnis Breytenbach is making by joining the DA. She is entering politics to fight for the independence of these institutions, not to control them.

Another thing: why does Zuma presume that every senior politician will simply take any increase they can get?

Public service salaries in South Africa today are on par with rich countries rather than with comparable emerging markets. With South Africa’s thin tax crust, burgeoning public debt and widespread poverty, this is to defy our economic reality.

At the apex of a weak and corrupt state, Zuma earns more in real terms than his British and French counterparts – two of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Studies show that many public servants salaries across the board are outpacing their counterparts in the private sector. Others indicate that the cost of the public service as a percentage of gross domestic product is higher than Germany and Scandinavia. The salaries of South Africa’s nine premiers are within the US dollar-for-dollar range of the five top paid governors of the US, the world’s biggest economy.

Politicians’ sense of entitlement has stirred a generalised anger, crystallised in the public fury with Nkandla.

And there is another point of which we dare not lose sight. As the famous jurist, Louis Brandeis said: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few. But we cannot have both.”

We need a president and a government that makes us feel that we are all in this battle together.

* Helen Zille is the leader of the DA and Western Cape premier.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.