Cut now or drown together

08 April 2019
Author   Jackie Wilson Asheeke
The education ministry will spend N$10 billion of their N$13.7 billion budget on salaries alone.  The government's wage bill more than doubled over the past five years, from N$13 billion in the 2014/2015 financial year to about N$30 billion by 2018.  The high percentage of civil service salaries and benefits are drowning this country. 
I am no economist, but, it seems to me that we will not conquer the economic crisis with tax revenues from on churches or street vendors and kapana sellers.  The solution lies in the place where the bulk of state funds rest:  civil service salaries and benefits. 
While I am loathe to ever agree with cuts to schools, hospitals and security services, cutting back severely where we can, is the only way to save us all. 
First, we must change how we think as a country; the Namibian work ethic is weak (across all colours, cultures and classes).  Civil service job cuts must not be about individuals, their backgrounds or personal situations, they must be coldly about outputs and performance – consistently doing your job to the best of your ability.  Those performing their duties should stay; those who don’t must go.
In the private sector, businesses under stress face moments of truth where labour cuts have to be made to save the entire enterprise – businesses must deliver services and products as promised.  It is harsh to fire people; but no successful business runs on hearts and flowers, but on profits and losses.  Government is, in effect, a business that must now face its moment of truth.
Needless to say, civil service retrenchments are political poison, particularly in an election year.  But, politicians need to decide which their objective is:  leading a drowned Namibia or a thriving one.
Take note:  those who casually demand cuts to the civil service payroll without doing anything to acknowledge and mitigate (where possible) the tremendous downstream and direct negative impacts of doing it, are no different from the selfish and unskilled leaders that caused the bloat in the first place.  Things must be properly planned.  Significantly reducing the civil service will be one of the most difficult things this country has ever done, let’s not understate this reality.
Consider this kind of job ‘cut’ - If our governors, ministers and management cannot do the full job to which they have been appointed unless they have state paid ‘advisors’, then hire the advisors and fire the governors, ministers and managers. 
I’ve seen consultants in some ministries do the job of several civil servants.  These workers happily dump many of their assignments on the consultant’s desk.  This kind of thing has been going on for years.  Solution:  Fire the multiple civil servants who have shown themselves to be superfluous and hire the single consultant who is doing the work anyway. 
When politicians and union leaders scream their populist political chants against civil service job cuts, remind them that sources of additional revenue to keep paying that heavy wage bill are limited.  I submit that those shouting the loudest against civil service job cuts are a part of the revenue collections problem with their under-the-table businesses, taxis, shebeens, cattle farming, shares in companies, board fees, rental properties, S&T windfalls, various rural based assets, etc… on which they (or their family members) have paid no taxes.  Too many Namibians (of all colours and classes) are fast to say what government should spend money on, but slow to pay their fair share of the taxes to finance those undertakings. 
My sister works as a chief executive in the HR Department of a major international pharmaceutical company.  One of her jobs is to handle the staffing issues that arise from their corporate mergers, acquisitions and phase outs of divisions and products.  She leads an axe squad of highly trained staff with specialized skills for the task at hand.  Her team has pre-approved separation package offers ready; they have benefits analysis already calculated.  She has labour lawyers, career counsellors, and job-change specialists in place. 
Namibia should assign an ‘axe squad’ of experts to visit every single government office (including State House, Parliament and SOEs).  Identify a monetarily significant number of cuts based on quantifiable outputs and performance targets, and get busy.  Phasing out and merging directorates may be more humane than abrupt cuts.  Moving people to jobs in other ministries must also be considered before terminations of excess staff.
Consider this:  A young relative of mine is currently an intern in a government ministry.  She tells me that the workers in her office never show up until 8:30 or 9 and routinely leave by 4 each day.  They give large parts of their work to her and she sometimes stays on duty until 6 or 7 in the evening as they leave her alone in the office to finish their assignments. 
I am less concerned about the exploitation and more focused on the fact that one unpaid intern is doing significant parts of the work of five fully paid civil servants.  These are the weeds that must be cut back.  Let’s hire recent grads and apprentices on stipends and fire three of those five workers in that office.
Civil servants know that it is hard to fire them, which is why job performance is not a priority.  The system must change immediately.
If this government can amend the constitution in record time to increase the number of Parliamentarians, then they can change the public service act and make it faster and easier to cite errant employees for poor performance, give them a chance to change, and failing that, fire them.
Namibia is floundering in the economic sea. We must cut away the iron weight of a bloated civil service or we will all drown together.


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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