19/06/2012 Minister of Public Service and Administration,Lindiwe Sisulu gives an overview of her department’s priorities and the current public service wage negotiations. Picture: Phill Magakoe

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma faces the unenviable task of being forced to deliver services to the poor, quickly. He doesn’t have the luxury of time.

And although it could be argued that this is the work of the government anyway, it is the pressure on Zuma, which is much more than his ministers could imagine, that is a factor as the ANC leader readies himself for battle at Mangaung, which, if he wins, will mark the start of his second term as leader of the country.

The ANC government he leads is now 18 years in power. It can no longer argue that it needs more time to fix the problems plaguing the civil service, as this would mean that the past 18 years have been wasted. Could Lindiwe Sisulu, the newly appointed Minister of Public Service and Administration, be the president’s trump card? Could she be the one who determines whether Zuma’s domestic policy is a success or not?

Zuma’s two previous ministers – Richard Baloyi, who was appointed in May 2009 when Zuma took over the reins, and Roy Padayachie, the benefactor of the president’s first cabinet reshuffle in October 2011 – appear not to have done much to sort out the problems plaguing the public service.

Will Sisulu crack it where her predecessors – Baloyi and the late Padayachie – seem to have failed?

In her in-tray, she has to tackle the unfinished business of revising the ministerial handbook. In the making for more than three years, with the cabinet seemingly in no hurry to finalise it – unlike the speed with which the Scorpions were disbanded through a defective law that has yet to be fixed – the populace is waiting to see what she is going to do to sort this matter out.

The handbook sets out guidelines on the perks national and provincial members of the executive are entitled to.

In a nutshell, it sets out how much taxpayers pay for the privileges of Zuma, his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, ministers, premiers and members of the provincial executive – alongside rules of good governance.

The current version, passed in 2007, is widely seen as out of date, especially after Zuma’s calls immediately after his inauguration in 2009 for belt-tightening by departments.

The revisions were initiated after the May 2009 installation of Zuma amid a public outcry as the new crop of ministers splurged on luxury cars.

In the past two years, it was reported that ministers spent hundred of thousands on luxury hotel accommodation which (goes the excuse) the guidelines permitted.

But the ministerial handbook is silent on the details that underpin good governance and conduct.

It does not set out permissible scales of hotel or car-hire rates and is vague on the definition of relatives, spouses or life partners who are entitled to free domestic flights and other benefits.

Such vagueness has led to abuse.

Another unfinished business is the code governing public servants who quit government to join companies in the sector in which they were in charge and those who do business with government.

A few years ago, following months of uncertainty, the Public Service Commission – a statutory watchdog body – proposed the government should prevent companies that do business with the government from hiring senior public servants, as a way to curb the ethical dilemma of conflict of interest.

A year-long cooling-off period – which could have effectively seen senior public servants forced to disclose job offers, with the provision that government would terminate contracts with their prospective employers – was proposed.

The measures were aimed at stopping the rising number of senior government officials who leave the government to join business from using privileged information and their contacts to secure public contracts in the private sector.

In a 2007 report, the commission proposed stringent policies that focused mainly on private companies. In 2005, the Elephant Consortium, which former communications director-general Andile Ngcaba led, acquired a 10.1 percent stake in fixed line telephone operator Telkom, worth R6.6 billion, from the Public Investment Corporation. Ironically, Ngcaba, given his position at the communications department, which oversaw Telkom, would have known that Telkom would sell the stake and he resigned.

This drew huge criticism from the public. Seven years later, with the matter still remaining unresolved, former water and environmental affairs minister Buyelwa Sonjica earlier this month joined the board of mining company Kumba Iron Ore, raising further questions about the government’s unwillingness to tackle this ethical problem. However, Kumba made it clear that it appointed her to its board because she had “knowledge of government policies”.

The third sticky point facing Sisulu is the rising public service wage bill, which is said to be at R314bn, a third of the budget.

With public sector wage talks having deadlocked, there is fear that any increase that is above inflation could put the state in a position where it was unable to deliver. The combative Sisulu has already warned unions that increases will be linked to performance and productivity, an unpopular sentiment within the union movement.

However, three issues immediately stick out of the wage negotiations. The first one relates to the salary increase, followed by the government’s housing allowance and the proposed multiterm agreement, which the Cosatu-affiliated unions have completely rejected.

The federation is also demanding an 8 percent pay rise and that the housing allowance should be pushed – from the current R800 a month – to R1 500.

Interestingly, the Independent Labour Caucus, a cohort of 11 unions not affiliated to Cosatu, appeared to be lenient on the government. The caucus is demanding a 7.5 percent salary increase and a R1 000 housing allowance.

Chris Kloppers, their spokesman, said this week his organisation would accept a multiterm agreement, provided it took into account inflation. “We want 7.5 percent, provided that it was in line with (inflation), plus 1 percent,” Kloppers said. Two months ago, the inflation rate was at 6.10 percent.

The government is offering a 6.5 percent salary increase and an additional R100 housing allowance to bring the total monthly contribution to R900.

The Cosatu unions demand that a single-term pact should be in place instead of the multiterm agreement, which might not take into account the uncertainty in the economy. Investment Solutions chief economist Christ Hart said this would push the salary increase to 9 percent, which would be way above inflation.

This, he said, could lead to the same situation in which the Greek government found itself – spending more than their economy could generate. “To have an increase that is bigger than your economic growth… you start taking from somewhere else,” he said, adding: “We will end up like Greece.”

The Public Service Commission interestingly proposed a three-year salary agreement instead.

But Nkosana Dolophi, the deputy general secretary of the teachers’ union Sadtu, said this week it was difficult for the unions to accept an agreement that would go on for three years because of the uncertainty in the economy. He said the unions would like to have a short-term agreement in place and review it the following year. This would take into account inflationary factors. He said it was not right for the government to plead poverty while pledging a bailout to battling EU countries.

At the G20 summit in Mexico, Zuma pledged $2bn (R16.83bn) for the International Monetary Fund.

Interesting, the belligerence comes from the unions affiliated to Cosatu, an ANC ally, which has annually prodded the government – through industrial actions – to relent and push up the wage bill.

But Sisulu, who has isolated and effectively silenced the military unions, is readying herself for another battle.

It will be uglier. While the unions are likely to flex their industrial muscle and stand up to her, she might spend most of her energy putting out fires rather than implementing Zuma’s dream of an effective public service.

The jury is still out.