New unit will look at government workers with ‘unexplained wealth’ in South Africa: Ramaphosa

The government has introduced a new ‘ethics unit’ targeting unscrupulous public sector employees, including those whose lifestyles don’t match their salaries, says president Cyril Ramaphosa.

Writing in his weekly open letter to the public, Ramaphosa said that around 16,000 employees on the government payroll were irregularly paid the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant, while more than 17,000 people employed at national and provincial government submitted applications for the grant.

This willful intent to steal from the public purse is unforgivable, and the government is now stepping up its efforts to prevent this kind of abuse and act against anyone in the public service involved in wrongdoing, he said.

“This month, the government launched a new Public Administration Ethics, Integrity and Disciplinary Technical Assistance Unit. The unit will build capacity within public bodies to institute disciplinary proceedings in cases of misconduct and cooperate with other organs of state in holding those responsible to account.”

Ramaphosa said that the unit would refer corruption to the government’s Anti-Corruption Task Team and follow up with departments to ensure criminal cases involving public servants translate into disciplinary cases.

The unit will monitor the conduct of lifestyle audits of public service employees, he said. “Where departments identify corruption and unexplained wealth, the cases will be referred to the South African Police Service.

“The new unit has already begun its work in earnest, helping to identify public servants involved in cases related to Covid-19 procurement, the special Covid-19 grant and Unemployment Insurance Fund fraud.”

Another critical aspect of the unit’s work will be institutionalising ethics and integrity in the public service ranks, Ramaphosa said.

“A few public servants have over the years taken the view that doing business with or unduly benefiting from the state is permissible for them, their friends and their families, provided there has been no illegality. We must do everything we can to change this attitude,” he said.

Top earners 

In South Africa, between 38%-44% of the top 10% of earners work for the government, says chief economist at Economists.co.za Mike Schussler.

In an analysis posted to social media, Schussler said that this figure rises to 41%-47% of the formal sector when considering the country’s state-owned companies.

“Seeing that the formal sector (is) only about a quarter of the adult population, that translates into 40% of the top 2.5% (of adult earners) are in government,” he said.

Data from the 2020 Budget shows that the average government worker remuneration passed R400,000 a year in 2019, with this figure heading towards the R450,000 mark in 2021.

This is not spread equally across all public servants, but there has been a clear trend towards public servants being paid a lot more, in general.

Research conducted by market analytics group Intellidex at the end of 2020 found that using inflation-adjusted income bands, there has been a declining share of government personnel earning less than an inflation-adjusted R20,000 per month – from 85% of staff in 2006/07 to 48% in 2018/19 – and a rising share of staff earning above that figure.


Read: If you want to be a top earner in South Africa, work for the government

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New unit will look at government workers with ‘unexplained wealth’ in South Africa: Ramaphosa