NEWS that the government and the public service unions have reached a wage settlement is to be welcomed. Adding to this is the suggestion that the government will demand “value for taxpayers’ money” from public servants after entering into a wage agreement that is to lead to the state’s annual wage bill rising to about R317 billion. To this end the government will sign an accord with unions committing workers to certain productivity levels.

For far too long, the South African public has been at the receiving end of poor, and in some cases non-existent, public service and it is about time that those who earned their living from taxpayers’ efforts did their bit.

Immediately teachers and other providers of essential services come to mind. This includes staff at service-oriented departments like home affairs, health and police who must pull up their socks if the government’s intention is to have any meaning. With more than a million public servants serving three layers of governance – national, provincial and local – South Africa has always been accused of having a “bloated” public service with little to show for it in service delivery.

Thus the wage agreement should come as an incentive for improved service and, hopefully, the benefits will be there for all to see.

As Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu pointed out, a R317bn wage bill is “unsustainable for a country growing at the pace we are at the moment”.

She is right. But it is also understandable that the government would have been anxious to avoid a repeat of the public service strike that brought services to a halt three years ago. With this in mind, unions pushed very hard for a 7.5 percent pay hike and a housing allowance of R1 500. But they ultimately settled for 7 percent and a R900 housing allowance.

While no one can begrudge public servants a right to a decent wage, it must be borne in mind that the country is still battling with serious shortages of jobs, lack of houses, insufficient health facilities and a large rural population still without basic facilities.

We thus urge unions that when they make demands on behalf of their members, they should keep the bigger picture in mind at all times.