Quote of the week

Mr Zuma is no ordinary litigant. He is the former President of the Republic, who remains a public figure and continues to wield significant political influence, while acting as an example to his supporters… He has a great deal of power to incite others to similarly defy court orders because his actions and any consequences, or lack thereof, are being closely observed by the public. If his conduct is met with impunity, he will do significant damage to the rule of law. As this Court noted in Mamabolo, “[n]o one familiar with our history can be unaware of the very special need to preserve the integrity of the rule of law”. Mr Zuma is subject to the laws of the Republic. No person enjoys exclusion or exemption from the sovereignty of our laws… It would be antithetical to the value of accountability if those who once held high office are not bound by the law.

Khampepe j
Secretary of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector including Organs of State v Zuma and Others (CCT 52/21) [2021] ZACC 18
30 August 2010

Champagne socialism at its best

I was not sure exactly how to react when I read that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande (who also moonlights as the Secretary General of the South African Communist Party) yesterday expressed his support for striking public servant workers and said the government must deal with the huge salary gap between low-earning public servants and the government’s “highest paid echelons”.

The central committee [of the SACP] calls on the government to set an example by ensuring that there is a collective moratorium on salary increases in the upper echelons of the government…. We note that [the] wage gap in the public sector between the highest-paid echelons and the lowest is 91 to one.

Should one applaud what appears to be a fine sentiment, or should one point out a few inconsistencies in Comrade Blade’s position? Oh well, let’s opt for the second option.

First, it seems perhaps just a tad hypocritical of Nzimande to bemoan this huge gap in salaries when he has been feeding at the through himself without complaining at all – at least not in public. Was he not the guy who last year purchased a R1.1 million BMW 7501 with tax payers money as one of his official vehicles (of course, all in line with that Bible of Ministers called the Ministerial Handbook)?

He was also criticised when it was revealed that he had stayed at the Mount Nelson Hotel (Cape Towns’ most prestigious address) for fifteen days. A room at the Mount Nelson costs between R6000 and R13 000 a night but Minister Nzimande got a government discount so it “only” cost tax payers about R40 000 for his hotel bill. 

As a Minister, Nzimande owns R1.7 million a year, which obviously excludes the perks such as free stays at the Mount Nelson, driving in R1.1 million BMW and having access to round the clock bodyguards to protect you from attacks by bullies called “Bees”, “Vleis” or “Klippies”. The President earns R2.254 million and ordinary MP about R760 000.

Nzimande and his fellow MP’s sure are lucky. 99% of South Africans earn less than these “servants of the people”. The median salary in South Africa (in the private sector) for a financial manager, for example, is around R367 000, while a construction project manager earns slightly less. The median salary for a personal assistant is about R110 000. The minimum wage for a domestic worker has been pegged at R1400 a month, which is R16800 a year. (For the price of Nzimande’s stay at the Mount Nelson almost three domestic workers could have been paid an annual minimum wage.)

Minister Nzimande’s statement might have had more credibility and might not have reeked of hypocrisy if he had also announced that he was trading in his BMW for a Toyota or a Small Volvo and that he was donating the money to a job creation scheme. It might also have helped if he at the same time had launched a bitter attack against the Ministerial Handbook and the excesses allowed by it and had decried the habit of cabinet Ministers who stay in the poshest Hotels on tax payers money while they are being paid a salary that is more than 100 times that of the minimum wage of a domestic worker.

Maybe a proposal by him for a 50% salary cut for all Ministers and other members of the Cabinet would also have gone a long way to give his otherwise hollow statement at least a tinge of credibility. I thought that I was a bit of champagne socialist, but Minister Nzimande really takes the cake.

I have nothing against hard working people earning a decent salary and can understand that Ministers must be paid more than a domestic worker. However, when one complains about the gap between the salaries in government paid to those in the top eschelons and those at the bottom one should at least signal that one was prepared to put one’s money where one’s mouth was. The statement by Nzimande looks suspiciously like: one rule for others and another for myself. 

Second, Nzimande’s expression of support for striking workers – while commendable in the abstract – seems to break every convention of collective cabinet responsibility as enshrined in section 92(2) of the Constitution. When a government has adopted a particular position after a discussion of the matter in the cabinet (which one assumes is what happened when Cabinet decided on offering no more than its 7% increase to workers), all cabinet ministers have an obligation to support that position and not to criticize it in public.

So, either the government is dysfunctional and never discussed this matter of vital importance for the governance of the country – which means we have no Cabinet government in South Africa and that policy decisions are made on a completely random and ad hoc basis – or Nzimande is in flagrant breach of his constitutional duty to observe collective cabinet responsibility.

Usually when a cabinet Minister disagrees with a government policy, that Minister can forcefully argue his or her case in Cabinet but once Cabinet has rejected the view of the Minister and adopted a policy (say a policy to offer only a 7% increase to striking workers), that Minister must either shut up or resign from the Cabinet. He or she would then be free to criticise the cabinet decision as a backbencher in Parliament (although he or she would then face the danger of being redeployed as South Africa’s ambassador to Outer Mongolia).

But a Cabinet Minister cannot have it both ways, enjoying the perks of Cabinet office and the power that goes with it, but criticising Cabinet decisions when it is expedient to do so. This is unfortunately not a demonstration of high principle, but rather hints at political opportunism. It also completely undermines the notion of collective cabinet responsibility enshrined in section 92 of our Constitution.

But it seems that Nzimande has decided that the R1.7 million salary of a Minister and the R1.1 million BMW will make resigning from Cabinet on a matter of principle far too painful. Ordinary MP’s don’t get to stay at the Mount Nelson and in outer Mongolia the Hotels are just not up to standard. No wonder he seems to be ignoring the Constitution. This allows him to take a position that diverges from that of the Cabinet while holding on to his fat cat salary and all the perks that go with the position of a Minister.

Some would say this is opportunism and hypocrisy masquerading as principle. I would be one of them. Wonder when the workers will also notice that the Secretary General of the SACP is wearing no clothes.

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