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FACTSHEET: South Africa’s civil service in numbers

This article is more than 3 years old

Claims about the rising number of government employees in South Africa are common. In recent years, the civil service – and its best friend, the public wage bill – has been described as bloated, unsustainable and a drain on the public purse

In his annual budget speech on 26 February 2020, finance minister Tito Mboweni announced that the public wage bill would be reduced by R160 billion over the next three years. 

“Public servants do crucial work for our country, often unappreciated, in difficult conditions,” he said. The government had “committed significant resources” to their wages every year for 15 years, he said, and tried to increase their numbers “in recognition of their demanding workloads”.

Just how much has the civil service grown and how have these figures affected the public wage bill over the years? In this factsheet, we take a closer look at the available data and what it can tell us. 

How many civil servants does South Africa have?

Statistics South Africa, the country’s data agency, tracks the country’s private and public sector employment in quarterly employment statistics

The data shows that between the fourth quarter of 2009 and the fourth quarter of 2019, the number of civil servants in South Africa grew from 1,780,553 to 2,108,125 – an increase of 327,572. 

These totals are made up of figures from national, provincial and local government departments, universities and technikons, and extra-budgetary institutions. 

According to Stats SA, extra-budgetary institutions do not operate through normal parliamentary budgetary processes but play an important role in delivering national government services. Examples include the South African Revenue Service, the Road Accident Fund and the Unemployment Insurance Fund

“The quarterly employment statistics should be accurate but it reflects numbers of workers at a particular date … it is really more of a ‘big picture’ data source than a detailed survey,” Morné Oosthuizen, deputy director of the Development Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, told Africa Check. 

1.2 million ‘full-time equivalent’ employees in 2018/19

The country’s national treasury also records the number of civil servants in South Africa. 

The data comes from Persal, the government’s payroll system. The figures are measured in “full-time equivalents”. This means a temporary or contract employee who receives fewer than 12 salaries per year is not counted as one full-time employee. Instead, their contributions are combined into full-time equivalents. 

For example, two people working full-time for six months of the year would count as one full-time equivalent.

The government’s payroll system shows that the number of civil servants in South Africa rose by 47,867 between 2009/10 and 2018/19, from 1,247,287 to 1,295,154. It peaked in 2012/13 with 1,327,231 employees and has been steadily declining since. 

The figures exclude low-wage temporary workers such as those employed through the Expanded Public Works Programme and Community Works Programme. According to the national treasury, this is why Stats SA records a larger number of civil servants. 

Both data sets are standard but have different uses

“Both numbers of individuals employed and full-time equivalents are standard ways of describing employment, although they would have different uses,” Oosthuizen told Africa Check.

For example, Stats SA’s employment reports include all people with jobs, even though some of them might have worked for only one hour in a week. But when the government talks about the work it creates, it uses person-years of work or full time equivalents, he said. 

To determine how many people have jobs, it is best to look at the number of individuals employed. But a full-time equivalent measure is needed to work out the volume of work created.  

Prof Jannie Rossouw, head of the School of Economic and Business Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, told Africa Check that there was considerable confusion between the number of individuals employed and full-time equivalent employment. 

“Total employment can, for instance, decline, while full-time equivalent employment can increase, or vice versa,” he said. 

How big is South Africa’s wage bill?

Stats SA also collects data on the gross earnings of civil service employees. In the last three months of 2009, R85 billion was paid to 1.8 million employees. Ten years later, in the fourth quarter of 2019, R196 billion was paid to 2.1 million employees. (Note: Matlapane Masupye, director of labour statistics at Stats SA, told Africa Check these figures have been adjusted to account for inflation.) 

These figures are gross earnings for ordinary hours for all permanent, temporary, casual, managerial and executive employees before tax and other deductions. They include the employer’s contribution to pension and provident funds, medical aid and other allowances. They also include performance and other bonuses, as well as overtime payments. 

Public wage bill tripled between 2006/07 and 2018/19

National treasury has acknowledged that the state employees’ wage bill is one of the largest components of public spending, accounting for 35.4% of national expenditure in 2018/19. This is R3.54 for every R10 spent by the government.

Persal data shows that from 2006/07 to 2018/19 the public wage bill more than tripled, growing from R154 billion to R518 billion. 

These figures are in nominal terms, meaning they are not adjusted for inflation, Rossouw said. He added that it was not enough to look only at total employment figures. “In assessing the public wage bill and its growth, it is also necessary to consider annual notch increases and promotions.” 

According to national treasury, the growth in compensation spending has been driven by increases in salaries and benefits rather than higher employment levels. 

Government salaries are categorised according to its grading system for employees. The higher the grade, the higher the salary. Data from the most recent medium term budget policy statement shows that a Grade 1 employee who earned R89,705 in 2006/07 would have gone on to earn R130,379 in 2018/19 – a 45.3% increase. A Grade 16 employee earned R2,012,025 in 2006/07 and R2,169,585 in 2018/19, an increase of 7.8%.

The treasury says the increase in compensation is largely due to above-inflation agreements between the government and unions. Wage progression and promotion policies also contributed significantly. For example in 2006/07, 31% of civil servants were in salary levels 1 to 4 and 10% were in levels 9 to 16. By 2017, 19% of civil servants were in salary levels 1 to 4 and 21% were in levels 9 to 16.

The number of civil service employees has declined, but this has not been enough to slow the rise in the wage bill.  

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