Taking from social grants and cutting back on services so as to finance the salaries of state employees had plunged other countries into chaos and she didn't know "what we will do on the day that our people revolt". So said the minister of public services and administration, Ayanda Dlodlo, in a newspaper interview last week.
She warned that the country's future looked bleak if drastic measures were not taken to rein in the public sector wage bill, now consuming 35% of central and provincial government spending. In fact, expenditure on state employees is even higher, because the figures published in the budget exclude the salaries of some 319 000 municipal employees, who consume 29% of municipal budgets. They also exclude Transnet and the post office, never mind other parastatals. And then billions are paid out to "consultants" to do work for which state employees are also paid.
Ms Dldolo's warning is timely, although many people are already in a periodic revolt against the government. Given the wretched quality of so many public services and the increasing share of GDP consumed by national, provincial, and local taxes, the wonder is that revolt is not more widespread.
Take just one example. The police have increased in number from 124 000 in 2000 to almost 195 000. But the proportion of households satisfied with the police in their area has dropped by 8% in the last five years to 59%.
Part of the scandal of the public sector is that the wage bill is so high, and rising in real terms. But the other part is that the numbers of state employees go up and up. The number of people employed by national departments has risen by 35% in the last 20 years to 475 000. The number employed by provinces has risen by 20% to 1 045 000. The number employed by local government has risen by 25% to 319 000.
With these numbers, which have kept pace with population growth, we should have some of the best public services in the world. Yet we have some of the worst education, some of the worst public hospitals, some of the highest crime rates, some of the worst public transport, and some of the least reliable electricity. Last month the minister of finance, Nhlanhla Nene, said some of our cities are "teetering at the brink of collapse". The month before that a deputy director general in the Department of Water and Sanitation said that "we cannot sustain waterborne sanitation because of crumbling infrastructure".
According to the South African Institution of Civil Engineering almost every segment of the state is bedevilled by poor planning, lack of skill and capacity, corruption, neglect, and poor maintenance. That institution is one of the few willing to call a spade a spade. "The driving force in the public sector remains transformation at all costs," it said in October last year.
Although Cyril Ramaphosa's government has taken steps to liberate various institutions from the tentacles of the Gupta family, there is as yet no sign of any attempt to liberate the state itself from capture by people who are supposedly the servants of the public. An interventionist state, to which the African National Congress (ANC) is committed, inevitably means hiring more and more people to do the intervening. These then have a vested interest in imposing more and more regulations, and resisting any attempts at repeal, as this would cost them their jobs.
Indeed, although Ms Dlodlo bemoans the size of the state wage bill, the ANC is planning to make it even bigger with the introduction of its national health insurance system. This will mean a huge increase in the number of bureaucrats all over the country. Their salaries will crowd out other types of expenditure on health care. Just as the ANC is not serious about investment and growth, as this column argued last week, it is not serious about cutting the state wage bill.
Cadre deployment was designed to enable the party to capture the state. In fact, the state has captured the party.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.