SA’s MPs earn more than twice as much as officials in countries with similar economies
Parliament justified salary hikes by comparing themselves to countries with GDPs per capita more than 5 times that of South Africa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) in Parliament on 11 February 2021. Picture: POOL/Gallo Images/Die Burger/Esa Alexander
South Africa's parliament recently had to put out fires, as news broke of a 3% salary increase to those in public office, including MPs, cabinet members, judges, and the president himself. News of the increases caused a furore, with public sector unions threatening strike action if the increases go ahead. Parliament attempted to explain away the increase for already highly paid officials, in the midst of a global financial crisis and increasing inequality locally, by pointing to the increased cost of living MPs have to put up with, as well as claiming they were apparently underpaid when compared to their…
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Parliament attempted to explain away the increase for already highly paid officials, in the midst of a global financial crisis and increasing inequality locally, by pointing to the increased cost of living MPs have to put up with, as well as claiming they were apparently underpaid when compared to their counterparts in other countries.
But it would appear parliament has benchmarked MPs and other officials’ salaries not against those of countries in a similar financial bracket as South Africa, but against those of the world’s biggest economies like the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and Germany.
Experts say this justification is not only disingenuous, but an insult to citizens who have to get by on just a fraction of their salaries.
Ramaphosa’s annual salary and benefits increased from R2.99 million to R3.08 million. The salary for Deputy President David Mabuza is now R2.91 million, up from R2.83 million.
Ministers will earn R2.47 million annually, while deputy ministers’ salaries have been bumped up to R2.04 million.
John Steenhuisen, as the leader of the official opposition, will receive an increase to R1.65 million from R1.6 million, while the Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema and other leaders of minority parties will receive an increase to R1.39 million from R1.35 million.
The Speaker of the National Assembly Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula is now earning R2.91 million.
Justifying the increases
According to parliament, in analysing and scrutinising the remuneration of public representatives, their pay packages must be benchmarked against those of their counterparts globally, particularly in similar developing countries.
Unlike in several other countries, parliament argued that SA MPs were barred from taking up any other remunerative responsibilities outside of their parliamentary work or this should be declared.
Parliamentary spokesperson Moloto Mothapo responded to criticism regarding the increases saying a desktop survey suggests that South African public representatives earn less than those of countries with a similar GDP (Gross domestic Product) and population, among other considerations.
Mothapo further explained that these basic salaries include a flexible portion, a travel allowance, a political office bearers’ allowance, and a contribution to the pension fund.
And, in explanation of MPs’ cost of living expenses, he clarified that certain deductions are taken from salaries, such as tax (Pay as You Earn), medical aid, party contributions, village accommodation, and others authorised by the individual MP like a bond or car instalment. In other words, nothing more than is deducted from ordinary South Africans’ salaries, bar party contributions.
However, according to the desktop survey parliament relied on in benchmarking salaries of SA public office bearers, many of the countries they compared MPs’ salaries to have considerably larger GDPs per capita than SA.
According to the World Bank South Africa’s per capita Gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021 was $6 994.2 (R115 389,39).
This pales in comparison to some of the countries against whose public officials’ salaries parliament compared ours, such as Germany, whose GDP per capita was $50 801.8 (R838 132,17).
Some of the other countries on their list were:
USA $63,206.5 (R1, 018,586.27),
UK $41,059.2 (R661 708.80),
France $43 518.5 (717 974,76)
Australia $51, 680.3 (R832 844.60),
Brazil, whose GDP was $7 518.8 (R124 034,52) and
India at $2,277.4 (R37 573,32)
When comparing MP’s salaries closely to countries with similar GDPs per capita, the picture looks very different to the one parliament tried to sketch.
Five countries with GDPs per capita much more comparable to that of South Africa – whose MPs’ average annual salaries came in at just over R1,14 million in 2021 – were Thailand, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Peru, and Belarus.
Their average MP salaries (excluding allowances) were:
Thailand – 1 362 720 Thai Baht (R627,797.60)
Bosnia and Herzegovina – 63 000 Bosnian Convertible Marks (R550,300.66)
North Macedonia – 1 107 000 Macedonian Denars (R305,915.60)
Peru – 249 600 Peruvian Sol (R1,066,474.98)
Botswana – 397 092 Pula (R522,425.43)
When comparing South African office bearers’ average salaries to these, it is clear that with the exception of Peru South African public officials earn nearly double (in the case of Macedonia, almost four times as much) as their counterparts in similar sized economies.
And when looking at the countries on the list of parliament’s “desktop survey”, our MPs’ salaries compare well to those of France’s R1 147 392.39 each, and those of the UK’s House of Commons, at R1 624 487.03 each.
This despite that both these countries’ GDPs per capita are at least five to seven times that of South Africa.
Salaries not justifiable
Zukiswa Kota, economist and programme head of Rhodes University’s Public Service Accountability Monitor, said the socio-economic context of the majority of South Africans should serve as the ultimate guide and reality check in determining salaries of public office bearers.
She said there are devastating levels of poverty and unemployment (63,9% for the 15-24 cohort and 42, 1% for those aged 25-34 years) in the first quarter of 2022.
Kota said on the other hand, there are indications that more than 50% of the country’s labour force earns less than R 3 700 a month.
“With rising income and wealth inequality in South Africa – it must be asked whether it is justifiable that those tasked with ensuring democratic change, good governance and public accountability should themselves be contributing to this social injustice,” she said.
What this public outcry on the salary increase has emphasised is that it is important to ensure transparency regarding the remuneration of parliamentarians and public officials, with Kota saying this is a vital aspect of the trust-building between them and the people they serve.
“The Declaration of Parliamentary Openness, for example, states that Parliamentary information “belongs to the public”. In this regard – it would be valuable for Parliament to open the information to help the public better understand the rationale behind the increases, the trade-offs inherent in such budgetary decisions,” she added.
Economist Bronwyn William agreed, saying: “”The charts are a bit misleading, in that “basic salary” doesn’t include the significant extra (often luxury) perks our MPs enjoy. Free cars, travel, houses(!), phones, servants, water and electricity (to rub salt in the South African citizens enduring load shedding’s wounds)”
She believes when all these perks are added, it “could easily double the ‘cost to country’ total package our MPs enjoy.
William says the fury at the increases could also stem from the fact that the country’s median income represents just 3,8% of the lowest paid MPs’ salaries of R1,1 million per annum.
“It seems disingenuous of our president to suggest that his colleagues are struggling to ‘cope’ with the rising cost of living (what exactly, do they have to pay for to survive, given they don’t pay rent, transport, energy, travel or water?) – when they expect their citizens to live off not even 5% of that.
She questions how parliament can argue for these increases, when elected officials live lives so far removed from their constituents who put them in that privileged position.