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Salary increases for political office bearers rooted in fiction not reality

20 December 2012
Author   Alfredo Tjiurimo HENGARI

WITHIN the past 30 days, I spent a bit of time in four countries: Ethiopia, South Africa, Namibia, and finally France where I currently find myself. With the exception of one country, the unfavourable global economic environment has marked the politico-economic conversation in three of these countries adversely.


As a consequence, choices have been made in line with this new reality of economic contraction. First, let me start with Ethiopia where I had a conversation with a leader of the opposition, but whose main income is US$280 (slightly less than N$2,800) as a professor at Addis Ababa University.

In response to my question as to how he as a professor survived on such an income, his reply was extremely dignified: “We Ethiopians believe in committing to bigger causes other than our individual circumstances”. He went on to explain that as a professor of political science, his commitment is to others as opposed to fighting for a higher salary, especially in a context where others lived on far less.

Second, in shockingly unequal South Africa, where I now live, a post-Marikana conversation about high salaries and income also took place and President Jacob Zuma requested that those who earn higher salaries make an effort not to increase their salaries as this widens the gap between the rich and the poor.

Third, in France, a country where income taxes now go as high as 75 percent for those who earn over one million euros, the conversation about rising inequality is urgent and heated. Much of the mantra hammered by the French Socialist government is about the need for those who have more to make extra effortsand sacrifices in assisting the disadvantaged in order to maintain social peace.

President François Hollande led by example when he came to office in May this year by reducing his presidential salary and those of cabinet members by 30 percent. Several other measures have been introduced to cut waste and reducing the privileges of the well-fed, while introducing pro-poor policies in the form of more housing for the poor in cities and modest increases in the minimum wage.

Sadly, Namibia - one of the most unequal societies in the world - has been functioning in the opposite direction. It deserves mention that our policies of the past 22 years have been less successful in reducing inequalities of the past. It is therefore absurd, and I must add shameful to note that in this age of austerity and backbreaking suffering and struggle for the majority poor and dispossessed of this country, the Public Office Bearers and Remunerations and Benefits Commission saw it fit to insult the majority of Namibians by recommending increases for public office bearers.

I say more because the last increase for our well-fed was at the height of the global economic crisis in 2008 when this category received a Christmas present in the form of salary adjustments of over 20 percent. I should add that at the time, as I am doing now, I also expressed by distaste for that increase. However, this recommendation is extremely insensitive and the reasons advanced speak more to fiction than to the reality of our times as a country.

The reasoning (more unreason than anything else) is insensitive because the men and women on this commission saw it wise (unwise) to come up with such a recommendation shortly after teachers, who are now the new poor had downed their teaching tools to fight for salary adjustments. What the teachers got was a mere 8 percent, which does not in any substantive way address their socio-economic hardships and insecurities.

This commission also made these shocking recommendations at a time when our unemployment situation (particularly youth unemployment) has reached alarming proportions, and sections of our population feeding from the dustbins that are removed from the homes of our ministers and political office-bearers, and the business elite.

It does show that the few of us who are the real beneficiaries of freedom have lost touch with the realities of the majority of Namibians. Since we have lost touch and our sense of justice, we have constructed our own reality and fiction, which does not resonate with the concrete and just demands of the majority of Namibians. Our political office bearers are not in need of more incentives and more fat. For the thin size of our economy and the many hardships on the ground, they have far more.

What they need to do is to work harder, to legislate better, to implement better and with urgency in their respective offices and impact positively on the lives of Namibians. I dare not venture into some of the outrageous reasons advanced for the equally obscene special salaries for the Attorney-General and the Director-General of the National Commission. They are extremely simplistic and a-contextual, and are more the work of fiction as opposed to the reality of the Namibian situation.

The poor, the unwashed and the un-perfumed majority has expressed confidence in the ruling party during past successive elections.

Immediately after a congress where a sense of justice triumphed, it would amount to showing the poor the middle finger to give more to those who have more at this time of giving, when the majority cannot even afford to live in dignity.

The President and the Prime Minister owe it to the poor and the struggling civil servants to reject the bad advice and ill-timed salary recommendations from the Public Office Bearers and Remunerations and Benefits Commission!

Alfredo Tjiurimo HENGARI is Head of the South African Foreign Policy and African Drivers Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.