OPINION: The question: Do we all stand together?

Norman McFarlane

The community response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has been inspiring, but it has also been exasperating.

Numerous community initiatives have popped up, aimed at filling the cracks that have emerged in the roll-out of government’s relief and aid measures to the vulnerable, and the various relief funds have seen people giving generously, even those who themselves are in a financially precarious position.

While it is commendable for someone who is fabulously wealthy to give a substantial sum to the various relief funds – Johann Rupert, the Oppenheimer family, Patrice Motsepe and Naspers have each pledged R1 billion or more – it is the individual whose income is either under threat, has been cut, or is now unemployed, that donates a comparatively significant sum, who is the true hero.

eNCA holding company, eMedia’s relief fund stands at over R16 million at the time of writing, and the heartwarming tales of people with very little making significant pledges, while facing a precarious future, are legion.

President Cyril
Ramaphosa has announced that he and the entire executive, and provincial premiers, will take a one-third pay cut for the next three months, and that the money would be donated to the recently launched solidarity fund.

He called on private sector executives to follow suit, and the likes of Woolworths and FirstRand responded, taking 30% pay cuts, either to ensure their staff remain on full pay, or to contribute to the fight against Covid-19.

The EFF rapidly followed suit, announcing that all MPs, MPLs and council members, would contribute one third of their salaries to the solidarity fund as well, and the IFP pledged R500 000 collectively.

Sadly, President Ramaphosa’s own party could not see its way clear to follow suit, nor could the DA.

But an even greater disappointment is the loud silence from the ranks of the public service, none of whom have taken pay cuts, or have faced retrenchment or lay-offs, whereas in the private sector, there is blood in the streets as people have taken unilateral pay cuts, some without the trade-off of working short time; been forced to take paid leave, then unpaid leave; been retrenched; or simply laid off.

This is the same public service that by world standards is grossly overpaid.

The public sector wage bill has ballooned from 1.1 million public servants earning R200 million in 2006/07 fiscal year, to 1.2 million public servants earning over R500 million in the 2018/19 fiscal year, an increase of over 150%. For every one rand that government spends currently, 46c goes to the public service wage bill.

But it gets worse. By government’s own reckoning, there are over 29 000 public servants who earn in excess of R1 million a year. As an aside, those elected officials at national, provincial, and local government levels, who are taking a pay cut, voluntarily or imposed, all form (a small) part of the public sector wage bill.

With economic activity dramatically curtailed, the yawning gap between budgeted and actual revenue collections, estimated at
R61 billion before Covid-19 hit, is likely to be even greater, which makes the public service’s stubborn insistence that the 4.5% increase due on April 1, in terms of the three year Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council be paid, a disgrace.

From whence must the money come? Which critical service or intervention, desperately needed to combat Covid-19, or feed the millions of hungry and destitute, must be sacrificed to fund that increase?

On the public enterprises front, SAA is another shining example of self-interest at the expense of others. Yes, lay-offs are the last thing we need right now, but SAA has been on taxpayer funded life support for the last 10 years, and the cupboard is literally bare, which is pretty self-evident considering government’s refusal to stump up yet another R10 billion to keep defunct carrier alive.

The threat to take the business rescue practitioners to court to stave off retrenchments would be hilarious if it did not show how stupid, or greedy, or both, the unions are.

If the retrenchments needed to restructure the airline so that it has a chance of flying again once Covid-19 subsides sufficiently, don’t happen, the only alternative is to liquidate the carrier, in which case the entire workforce loses their jobs.

And, even if the retrenchments do happen, it is doubtful that there will be enough cash to fund them.

And don’t even get me started on Eskom

So much for the solidarity as a nation, that President Ramaphosa has lauded each time he has spoken, since the pandemic struck.