The Wages of the High Life: SA Politicians Getting Fat off the Public Purse

By Dale T. McKinley · 11 Feb 2014

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Picture: President Jacob Zuma courtesy GovernmentZA/flickr
Picture: President Jacob Zuma courtesy GovernmentZA/flickr

If you hadn’t already noticed the ever-expanding waistlines of most of our politicians – a tell-tale sign of a political class feeding feverishly at the public trough - then you might have missed the latest bulging of their other ‘stomach’, salaries.

Following enabling recommendations from the ‘Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers’, President Zuma signed off on the most recent salary hike for the country’s national and provincial politicians that further cements South Africa’s status as one of the best places in the world to be a politician. As a result 34 Ministers, 33 Deputy Ministers, 52 Parliamentary Chairpersons, 53 Parliamentary Whips, leaders of opposition parties, around 200 MPs, 9 Premiers, 90 MECs and 331 MPLs will pad their already hefty pay packages with another 5% windfall (backdated to April last year).  

But it is not the percentage increase – a somewhat misleading measurement, which ironically allows these politicians to claim that they are somehow getting short-changed due to the increase falling below the inflation rate - which should concentrate the focus of our gaze. It is rather the actual amount of the yearly increase and the commensurate salaries. 

Deputy President Motlanthe gets an extra R118 000 for a R2, 5 million yearly package while Ministers will receive an additional R100 000 to raise their annual salary to R2,1 million. National MPs and MPLs will have to make do with R45 000 and R43 000 yearly increases respectively, taking their corresponding annual salaries to R934 000 and R904 000.

Local politicians have followed suit. In late January the City of Johannesburg announced that Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Lechesa Tsenoli had approved over R122 million in salary hikes for the city’s 230 councillors, 17 committee chairpersons, 10 mayoral committee members as well as the city council’s Chief Whip and Speaker. Accordingly, councillors in this oft-claimed ‘world class’ city will receive a R28 000 annual increase, elevating their yearly salary to R458 000 while committee chairpersons get a R39 000 hike which ups their annual salaries to just under R825 000.

All of these pay hikes are, in formal terms, separate from the incredible array of benefits and perks enjoyed by our politicians but which are, in reality, part of the overall salary ‘package’. Despite repeated warnings by the Treasury to reign-in such ‘nice-to-haves’ alongside promises by the self-same politicians to practice self-restraint, Minister Tsenoli recently approved increased monthly cell phone allowances for South Africa’s 10 000+ local politicians of up to R3 300 for metro mayors and R1 650 for councillors.

And, with the explosion of community protests over lack of service delivery alongside rampant corruption and mismanagement at the local government level clearly in mind, the Minister further extended risk benefits to mayors and councillors that include life cover and personal security.

Let’s put this all into a larger societal perspective. According to the latest available information from Stats SA, the median wage of those South Africans fortunate enough to actually have a job stands at R2800 per month or R33 600 per year. With respect to the lowest paid South African politician, a local councillor, the pay hike for the Johannesburg variety is only slightly less than a worker’s median yearly wage.

Almost unbelievably, even the monthly cell phone allowance of metro mayor’s is R500 more than what an average South African worker earns in the same period. For our politicians, talk is clearly not cheap.

A comparison of worker and politician wage increases only further confirms the huge wage gap. Worker demands for wage increases, which politicians (as well as capitalists) continually decry as excessive, have, according to the Labour Research Service delivered an average increase since 2007of R957 per month. Meanwhile, a quick calculation of the same average for national politicians rings in at 5 times that of the workers.

When it comes to the global picture the wages of our top-tier politicians even beat out their colleagues from some of the world’s wealthiest countries. President Zuma earns more than British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. South Africa’s national Ministers edge out their British peers by a cool R300 000+ and have raced ahead of the French by almost R1 million per year. Even if by smaller differentials, our national MPs are also better paid than their British and French counterparts.

While most media and public attention over the last many years has been directed at the ever expanding wage gap between workers and bosses in the private sector, it is clear that when it comes to politicians and workers the same ‘general rules’ apply. What we have now in South Africa is a political class that economically stands so far above the vast majority of people it governs that it cannot be said, with any seriousness, to either identify with or represent them.

So, when President Zuma or Minister Nzimande tells us that ANC/SACP politicians have an enduring commitment to redress wage inequality and are simply servants of the people, we must demand that they and their cohorts practice what they preach. When DA leader Helen Zille boasts about the DA-run Western Cape refusing the latest salary increases, we must ask her and her party why they have readily accepted all previous hikes and have nothing to say about the astronomical wage gap between DA politicians and the black majority that they so desperately want to vote for them.

Instead of mouthing platitudes and trying to defend the indefensible, South Africa’s politicians should put into practice the words of Africa’s most humble, honest and poorest politician ever, Thomas Sankara: “If we want greater justice, every one of us must recognise the real situation of the masses and see the sacrifices that must be made.”

**Correction: This article was amended on 16 February 2014 at 17:52. An earlier version stated that President Jacob Zuma accepted a salary hike this year and that he earned a million rand more than David Cameron. This is incorrect and has been revised. President Zuma declined a salary increase of around R140 000, which would have put his salary at just under R2,8 million a year. SACSIS aplogises for the error.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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Steve Chatteris
12 Feb

Zuma Salary

While I agree with what you say I would like to know how you calculated that Zuma earns nearly R1000.000 more than Cameron. Cameron's earnings are 142.500 pounds sterling. At an average exchange rate of 16 to 1 over the past 12 months that would have Cameron earning R2.280.000. Just as a matter of interest: SA GDP 2012 384.3 billion US dollars. Britain's GDP 2012 2.435 trillion US dollars.

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Dale T McKinley
13 Feb

Zuma Salary

Hi Steve. Thanks for your comment/question. I used information regarding Zuma's salary from a City Press article ( published in July 2012 when Zuma’s salary was R2 622 561. When the latest 5% increase salary is added, Zuma's present salary comes to R2 753 689. As compared against the figure provided for Cameron in the City Press article (R1 843 884) the difference is just under R1 million.

What I did not factor in was the declining value of the SA Rand over the last year and the possibility that Cameron might also have gotten a raise in the last year and a bit. I have subsequently confirmed - as you point out - Cameron's annual salary at 142 500 pounds sterling ( see So, the difference would presently stand at just under R500 000.

My omission, for not stating that the figures provided were from 2012. While the difference is now around R500 000, the main point remains absolutely valid – i.e. that Zuma earns a sizable sum more than Cameron.

David Dickinson
12 Feb

Ward Committee Allowances

This article raises important issues regarding the political patronage network that is solidifying in South Africa. Another dimension is the R1,000 monthly expense allowances that are permitted for the ten ward committee members of each Councillor/Ward. In comparison to typical salaries this is a considerable sum. There is little if any actual accounting for this being 'expenses'. In reality it's more of a stipend and, while possibly well intended, completes the political patronage network into the grassroots.

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14 Feb

This is a Vital Observation

Patronage and state violence are two sides of the same coin. And patronage also explains a lot of horizontal violence.

Martin Hahn
13 Feb

Politician Salaries

Hi Dale, an interesting fact that you do not mention in your article and which only reinforces your sentiment and argument is that the 'Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers' recommended a sliding-scale salary increase. It recommended no increase for salaries above R1 million. Zuma ignored this, as is his right, and made it an across the board increase. Press%20release%20statement%20for%202013-14%20recommenda...

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Rory Verified user
14 Feb

Snouts in the Trough

Given all the reports, that appear with sickening regularity, about municipal and other levels of government's dereliction and corruption I think it is probably correct to say that we have a surfeit of individuals supposedly in public service but in reality more committed to self-service. Therefore their wages and wage hikes are to be expected and the only sensible thing to do is get them out of office, outrage in and of itself is pointless.

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