- Nic Spaull & Adaiah Lilenstein
Let us start our foray into this year’s education budget by considering blessings and curses. Given the times that we are in there is one English ‘blessing’ that is especially apt: “May you live in interesting times.” It’s also claimed that this is actually a traditional Chinese curse, and that life is better during “uninteresting times” of peace and prosperity than in “interesting” ones which are usually times of trouble. However you spin it, we are in very interesting times.
In the 2021 budget, public sector wages make up R650-billion or a third of the total budget. Because there are more teachers (407,000) than any other kind of public servant, teacher salaries are the largest single line item in the entire budget and make up a third (R208-billion) of all public sector wages. That’s 4,1% of GDP. For the second year teacher salaries in South Africa will decline in real terms. The 2021 budget showed that salaries in basic education increased by only 1.4% (from R205-billion to R208-billion), and given that inflation was about 3,3% in 2020, that’s a 1.9% decline in real terms. That sounds like a bad thing, but it’s worth putting this in historical perspective – both politically and economically.
Exactly one year ago, the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) threatened to “collapse the public service” and “part ways” with government if Treasury did not honor it’s 7% wage increase. Treasury explained that it could not fulfill other constitutional obligations if it honored that wage agreement, and argued for a public sector wage freeze (the one it then implemented). The courts agreed with Treasury, but the judgement is under appeal in the Constitutional Court (see p.32). As much as the 2021 Budget fuss has been about other issues like provisions for vaccines and higher sin taxes, the real story is the ongoing implementation of the public sector wage freeze. Public sector wages are the left, right, and center of government spending, government debt, and government’s ruling alliance with COSATU.
In a research paper we released last year we found that between 2008 and 2019 teacher wages increased by an average of 9,2% per year while average inflation was only 6,3% per year. The only way provinces have coped with higher salaries is to implement hiring freezes leaving schools without principals and heads of departments.
Perhaps this is all a bit abstract for some readers, so let’s talk about monthly salaries. What do teachers actually get paid in South Africa? The common perception is that teacher’s salaries are low. What does the data say? A paper published last year using government payroll data shows that the average teacher in South Africa was paid about R42,700 a month (including benefits), and the total package for teachers 50 years and older was R47,874 per month or about R575,000 a year (see figure). This is not to say that teachers are overpaid, but rather to highlight that teacher salaries have increased dramatically over the last 10 years, and thus the halt in salary increases along with other wages in the public sector is apt.
Figure 1: Monthly teacher pay in South Africa according to 2019 government payroll data
(Source: Gustafsson & Maponya, 2020)
In our view, given the circumstances in South Africa – not only the need to fund vaccines and their rollout, but also to address chronic unemployment and hunger – it is fair and reasonable to implement a wage freeze. The unemployment rate for those aged 15-24 years is now 63% according to the latest StatsSA survey. While we do need more money to go into education, it is not in the form of further salary increases for teachers. Class sizes are set to expand, and pressure on non-personnel spending (like books) is also rising. We need to hire and train unemployed youth-with-matric as Teacher Assistants (R3,600 per month) and make sure all kids have books. These TA’s can be allocated to primary school teachers throughout the country with a special focus on early grade reading and mathematics, thus helping to manage large class sizes and employing 400,000 youth. It’s time to pivot from our old strategy of salary increases for the well-paid and prioritise those who are actually marginalised in society.
This article first appeared in the Financial Mail on the 25th of February 2021