Minister Rijkenberg’s govt wage bill nightmare

Finance Minister Neal Rijkenberg

Minister Rijkenberg’s govt wage bill nightmare

Minister for Finance, Neal Rijkenberg has a monkey on his back. It is the government wage bill. Despite efforts to freeze the hiring of public service workers and a moratorium on promotions, it just keeps going up. Much of the money goes to the security forces, some of which are not even accountable to the public for their expenditure. The ministry of Health, the most important ministry in this time of a pandemic ranks fourth in the wage bill, writes NIMROD MABUZA.

The government wage bill, which is a thorn in Minister of Finance Neal Rijkenberg’s side, has been growing exponentially over the years and is threatening economic sustainability. Despite government’s efforts to freeze the hiring of public workers and stop promotions, as a cost cutting measure on the wage bill, it continues to rise and Rijkenberg is having a nightmare about it.

Government’s book of estimates for the year 2021/22 shows that in the last year the wage bill increased by E331 445 000, reflecting an increase from of about five percent from the previous year. In the, 2019/20 financial year the wage bill stood at E6.8 billion and it increased this year to E7.2 billion. Government’s wage bill for the civil service accounts for over 45 percent of the E16 billion recurrent budget.

The total recurrent budget, Rijkenberg said in his budget speech in February, decreased by 3.2 percent from last year’s, and the wage bill accounts for about 30 percent of the total national budget, recurrent and capital, of E24 billion. The total national budget, according to Rijkenberg, decreased by 0.12 percent from last year. Recurrent budget leaves government with just E6.37 billion for capital projects. A sum of E3.2billion was set aside for payment of public debt.

Of the E6.37 billion, the International Convention Centre and Five-Star Hotel, one of three millennium projects initiated by King Mswati III, claims slightly over E1 billion making it the largest single capital project. Costs for the ICC&FISH project are now close to E7 billion. The construction of the Mbadlane – Manzini road follows closely in terms of costs. This is another royal project.

At the budget debate, the House of Assembly threatened not to approve the over E1 billion budget for ICC&FISH to cater largely for finishing touches of the gigantic project. But we all knew that this was nothing but idle talk. The MPs were making a mountain out of a mole hill. They could not have possibly turned off the tap on the last stages of the project. It would not make sense.

There is no denying that these high-costing projects come at the expense of ordinary emaSwat’s livesi and the appalling condition of roads in the country is perfect example. The Ministry of Public Works and Transport is often left with no budget to upgrade or improve roads. Often times, budget provisions for service delivery for the benefit of emaSwati do not come through. The proposed construction of the Pigg’s Peak/Bulembu road is one such example.

The wage bill has been government’s biggest challenge. Way back in the early 2000s, the International Monetary Fund began to warn government about the rapidly increasing wage bill but it all fell on deaf ears. The wage bill has been constantly while the IMF’s reports begging for implementation. In his third budget speech since appointment as political head of the Ministry of Finance, Rijkenberg bemoaned the huge wage bill.

“The Wage Bill is by far the largest single expenditure item and has been growing rapidly over the past years, threatening fiscal sustainability.

“The reduction in wage related expenditure will be realised through a continuation of the hiring freeze to all government entities effective from 2018/19, alterations to allowances, reallocation of excess positions between ministries, alternative service delivery for support services and possibly an Early Voluntarily Retirement Scheme (EVERS).

“The consolidation plan further includes alterations to the purchase of goods and services, the internal transfers as well as the capital budget,” said Minister Rijkenberg. However, whatever Rijkenberg may say and try to do to reduce the wage bill it is bound to fail. The elephant is still in the room.

According to the book of estimates, there is another strange allocation. Its objectives are listed as; to administer the national courts and the national advisory committees. Its programme description is listed as; subvention to the Eswatini National Treasury

This is the Eswatini (formerly Swazi) National Treasury. Its functions and operations are unknown. This 2021/22 year, it has received a subvention of E426 million; E3 million less than last year and almost four times higher than the budget of the judiciary. Of the E426 million, E3 million is provision for CTA charges. The entire budget provision of the Swazi National Treasury is money that Rijkeberg cannot publicly account for.

The Swazi National Treasury employs its own people and they add to the number of public servants. Chief Officer in the King’s Office, Chief Mgwagwa Gamedze is the controlling officer. The Swazi National Treasury is not subject to scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee but only answerable to the Royal Board of Trustees. Up until 1992, the Swazi National Treasury was subject to audit by the Auditor General and the reports were embarrassing.

One of his last assignments as Minister of Finance, Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini performed the great cover-up when he bestowed holy cow status on the Swazi National Treasury ostensibly to protect the royal household. There is also the King’s Office, which receives a provision of E7.7 million for CTA charges. Its budget provision is E2 million higher than last year’s. The objectives and programme description of the King’s Office are not listed.

The Ministry of Education and Training, which gets the lion’s share of the budget of E3.5 billion to cater for all educational and training programmes representing 14.5 percent of national budget, leads the pack with the highest amount paid in wages.

According to the book of estimates, government has set aside E2.59 billion for wages and this leaves the ministry with about E912.5 million to cater for educational and training programmes. It increased from year’s E2.46 million. The Ministry of Education and Training employs about 16 000 teachers, which makes it the single largest employer in government.

The Ministry of Health is the second largest recipient of the national budget. Government has allocated the ministry E2.8 billion recurrent budget, which is 11.5 percent of the total national amount to support the implementation of its programmes and interventions. Since health is a priority, it would be expected that its salary bill is the second highest. But it’s not. It is fourth.

Security forces are second and third in the perking order. The army has the second highest wage bill at about E980 million and this leaves very little of the E1.18 billion recurrent budget. It slightly decreased from last year’s E992 million. The number of soldiers is not known, all hidden ostensibly for national security, but it’s unlikely they are above the 5 000 mark.

Despite government’s freeze on hiring and promotions, recently the army announced the promotion of over 140 of its soldiers. The police are in third position with a wage bill of E873.4 million of its E1.1 billion recurrent budget. This year’s wage bill increased from E834 million.

Of this, E131 million is for salaries for officers offering protection to diplomats and heads of state. The Ministry of Health is fourth with a wage bill of E848 million and E858 million is provision for drugs. This should explain the perennial shortage of drugs in public institutions. It increased from E808 million last year. Drugs increased significantly from E514 million.

The outbreak of Covid-19 in March last year accounts for the increase in the budget for drugs. Nurses have always complained about the shortage of staff. At the outbreak of Covid-19, government eased its restrictions and allowed the Ministry of Health to recruit more nurses.

The Correctional Services, another security department, is fifth with a provision of E447 million for wages. For recurrent budget, government made a provision of E513 million for correctional services and this shows that the department remains with very little for operations.

Last year, the wage bill for correctional services was at E423 million. The Ministry of Agriculture is sixth with a wage bill of E194 million, an increase from E183 million last year. Largely, the Ministry of Agriculture boasts of highly educated personnel but it still a long way from ensuring food security.

Lying in seventh position with a wage bill of E162 million is the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. The wage bill increased significantly from last year’s E131 million yet on the ground, the ministry of public works and transport has nothing to show for it.

The roads department is good as defunct as well as the public works department. Cyclone Eloise came in January and greatly exposed the Ministry of Public Works that it has been sleeping on the job. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation is eighth with a wage bill of E153million, increasing slightly from E148 million.

As expected, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spends hugely on external travel and government has made a budget provision of E58 million. Again, Covid-19 played a key role as the budget drastically reduced from last year’s E172 million. Notably, King Mswati III and the Indlovukazi did not travel last year. The Indlovukazi only travelled to Mozambique. With the third wave of Covid-19 hitting the world, it is unlikely Their Majesties will travel anywhere.

The Kingdom of eSwatini has 20 ministries, including that of the office of prime minister and deputy prime minister. The ministries are too many for a country of just about 1.2 million people. On its last days, the previous government led by PM, Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini recommended the reduction of ministries to 14 but nobody took up the matter. At independence, there were only eight ministries. The increase took place during the 17-year reign of Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini

  • Story produced by Inhlase Centre for Investigative Journalism

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