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Does S. Africa really employ more civil servants than the US? The claim is false

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Does South Africa employ more civil servants than the United States of America, a country with one of the largest economies in the world and a population of 319 million?

The claim crops up frequently in tweets, blog posts and comment pieces.

Even Business Times columnist Stephen Mulholland weighed in on the subject last year in a piece headlined, “An orgy of jobs for bureaucratic pals”. “We have more people on the state payroll than the US, which has a population six times the size of ours and a gross domestic product (GDP) some 45 times bigger than ours,” Mulholland claimed. A News24 contributor described the South African civil service as “the largest gravy train ever seen in Africa”.

There are very real concerns about the size of South Africa’s government bureaucracy but does it really eclipse that of the United States?

2.161 million SA civil servants

Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) tracks employment in South Africa in both private and public sectors.

According to its June 2014 Quarterly Employment Statistics (QES) survey, there were 455,701 national government employees, a further 1,118,748 people working for provincial authorities, 311,361 people were employed by local authorities and 275,851 employees worked for “other government institutions” like libraries, parks, zoos and education and training authorities. This adds up to a grand total of 2.161-million civil servants.

Ten times more

US President Barack Obama addresses a "town hall meeting" at the University of Johannesburg on June 29, 2013. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb
US President Barack Obama addresses a "town hall meeting" at the University of Johannesburg on June 29, 2013. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb" />

So how does Uncle Sam’s workforce compare? The US Bureau of Labour Statistics conducts a monthly survey as part of its Current Employment Statistics (CES) programme. Around 144,000 businesses and government agencies are included.

We calculated the average US employment numbers for April, May and June 2014 and compared them to StatsSA data. An average of 2.123-million people worked for the US federal government during that time. A further 5.063-million people worked in 50 state governments and 14.108-million were employed by local authorities. (We excluded the US Postal Service from the count, as StatsSA does not categorise South African Post Office workers as government employees.)

That left us with a US tally of 21.294-million civil servants - almost ten times the corresponding number for South Africa.


Comparing raw numbers does not tell the whole story.

When President Jacob Zuma announced a new cabinet in May this year, which included a number of new ministers, deputy ministers and government departments, it was described as “bloated”, “a monster” and “a waste of money".

Compared to former president Thabo Mbeki’s second term, when there were 28 ministers, Zuma’s current cabinet consists of 35 ministers and 37 deputies.

Unsurprisingly, new ministries and portfolios have over the years added to South Africa’s civil service bill which grew by a staggering 145.6% between 2005 and 2012, according to a study conducted by economists Adèle Breytenbach and Jannie Rossouw.

Inflation accounted for only a portion of this rise. The per capita income of civil servants went up too, top management earned more relative to middle management and the number of government employees climbed by 27.3%. (In contrast, public sector employment in the US increased by 2% during the same period.)

Breytenbach and Rossouw concluded: “[R]ecent growth trends in civil service remuneration are unsustainable, as similar future growth will not be affordable from an economic perspective. A continuation of the recent growth trend will 'crowd-out' other public sector spending priorities.”

The freezing of unfilled civil service jobs - as government is supposedly contemplating at the moment – will not be enough to turn the tide, Breytenbach and Rossouw warned.

Commenting on the recent Quarterly Employment Statistics survey, Dr Azar Jammine - the chief economist at Econometrix – wrote: “[E]mployment creation by means of public sector agencies is not a permanent solution to the country's vast unemployment problem. In the longer term, such a policy is bound to result in huge fiscal strains.”

Conclusion: The claim is false

Data from Statistics South Africa and the US Bureau of Labour Statistics shows that South Africa’s public sector is almost ten times smaller than that of the US: 2.161-million government employees compared to 21.294-million.

But the raw numbers belie disturbing trends. Between 2005 and 2012 the number of South African government employees increased by more than a quarter, whereas numbers grew by only 2% in the US. There are certainly real concerns about long-term sustainability.

Edited by Julian Rademeyer

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