Transcript: Post-Cabinet media briefing Q&A

2 July 2009

Presenter: Themba Maseko, Government Spokesperson
Date: 2 July 2009
Venue: Imbizo Media Centre, Ground Floor, 120 Plein Street, Cape Town

Questions and answers

Journalist: Just two things, Themba. With regards to the doctors, did Cabinet discuss the fact that provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal have fired 200 doctors, and would Cabinet like to see that happening in other provinces where doctors are on strike? And then two, was the issue of the National Health Insurance (NHI) with regards to healthcare reform discussed and do you know if or when the policy is coming? I mean, why is it cloaked in so much secrecy? I mean, when exactly is this whole explanation on NHI coming?

Themba Maseko: Let’s start with the last question, the discussions on the National Health Insurance is at this stage a discussion that is taking place within the ruling party and also with the social cluster, so it’s still early days. No firm proposals have been tabled so Cabinet has not discussed that matter. But as soon as there are concrete proposals on the table Cabinet will definitely discuss that matter with a view to taking a firm decision on it. As far as the whole healthcare system is concerned, as you’ll be aware the social cluster is actually looking at a process that will make sure that we embark on major programs to improve the conditions of all our health facilities, and as we say in the statement at the moment the issue on the agenda, in the national agenda, is addressing the salary, low salary levels of doctors. That’s the priority, but at the same time we believe that as we address the issue of salaries there is an urgent need to address all the other challenges that exist in the health sector. And that is what the cluster is currently working on. On the firing of doctors by the provinces, that matter was not discussed specifically, but the Cabinet noted that a lot of the strikes that are taking place in many parts of the country are illegal strikes- they’re wildcat strikes. But the primary focus of the discussion was the fact that we have tabled an offer which we consider to be fairly reasonable, it doesn’t meet all the needs of the striking doctors, but we think it goes a long way towards meeting the requirements of doctors, and we believe that the negotiators need to be given the chance to finalise the deal. The deal was presented to the Chamber and the negotiators kind of accepted what Government was putting on the table as a substantive improvement, but the deal still needs to be taken back to the members of the unions before an agreement is finally signed. So we want to make a special appeal to the medical doctors to go back to work as a matter of urgency and give the negotiators a chance to finalise the deal.

Journalist: Hi Themba. What’s the thinking around what would happen if the doctors don’t go back? I mean Tygerberg Hospital already yesterday rejected the offer, so I mean what’s Government’s thinking on that?

Themba Maseko: Well, at this point in time our primary focus is to just get the doctors firstly to understand the details of the offer, because we think that what we have put on the table is a substantial improvement on what was originally in the discussions, and we believe that Government has indeed bent over backwards to try and accommodate a lot of the demands of the doctors, and it is unfair for an impression to be created to Government that we are being insensitive, we don’t want to listen to the demands of the doctors. We have listened to them, we have I think done quite a lot of work to try and improve the offer, and our hope is that the doctors will accept the offer that’s on the table. But if the wildcat strikes continue Government is going to be forced to resort to drastic measures which will include, as other provinces have done, the interdicts being applied for in the courts and further action being taken against the striking doctors.  

Journalist: Just a few things, Themba. About these doctors that have been fired, and you said Government might resort to more drastic measures, how exactly is that going to work? Because I know for example of one hospital now that has only got seven doctors left after the rest were dismissed. Is there any likelihood these doctors will be reinstated later? I mean, surely Government can’t afford to be firing doctors when there’s already such a shortage in the workplace. And then were there any figures given as to how many doctors have been taking part in these wildcat strikes and also how many hospitals have been affected by it, and to what extent?

Themba Maseko: Well, the offer that’s on the table is valid I think it’s 21 days so the unions have to take a decision within 21 days, and at the end of that 21 days Government will implement the offer and those doctors who would have been fired by that particular point in time are going to have to reapply for their posts. The posts will be advertised and other doctors will be invited to apply. So that’s how the situation is going to unfold. Regarding the number of doctors on strike and the number of hospitals affected, that information was not discussed specifically at the Cabinet meeting yesterday, but the department of health will have the information about how many doctors are affected and how many hospitals affected. Okay, are you still on the doctors’ strike? Okay. Let’s stick with that.

Journalist: Is Cabinet of the viewpoint that, I mean, you said that their offer was reasonable and fair. Is Cabinet of the view that the doctors are being greedy in their demands? And does Cabinet think that they are using patients as an unfair bargaining tool or chip or whatever the case may be?

Themba Maseko: Well, we don’t think the doctors have been greedy. The fact of the matter is that these are professionals who have gone through many years of training, and that is why we’re acknowledging right at the beginning that they have not been paid good salaries, and that is why we’re saying that our offer on the table is a start of a process that is aimed at making sure that they are properly compensated and rewarded for the good work that they are doing in service of our population. So we don’t think that it’s unreasonable for them to demand decent salaries, and that is why we’ve made available up to a billion rands to try and accommodate the requirements and needs of doctors. So it’s not a question of us thinking that they are being greedy. The problem is that a lot of them embarked on strike action whilst the negotiations were taking place, which we think that was incorrect, and secondly the fact that they engaged in strikes which are illegal in terms of South African law is indeed a problem. But we have put a lot of our focus and attention on finding a solution, meeting the doctors halfway in terms of their demands for decent wages and that is what we think our package is representing. Whether they’re using patients as a tool to put their demands across we don’t necessarily think so. We just think that they’re using withdrawal of labour as a means of bargaining with the state, something that we still consider unfortunate, but nonetheless we think that we’ve reached a stage where we are on the brink of signing an agreement with the unions and that’s where the focus should be.

Journalist: Okay, using this strike as a lesson of note, what is Cabinet’s stance on a possible teachers strike and the imminent construction workers strike at Green Point Stadium on the 8th (July)?

Themba Maseko: Well, we’re noting that we seem to be entering what we call a striking season in the country. It’s not necessarily something illegal or wrong. Workers in this country have a Constitutional right to withdraw their labour as part of the bargaining instruments, and we reiterate the point that Government is committed to engaging all the unions in negotiations to make sure those agreements are reached sooner rather than later. We do not want to see strikes taking place, especially in essential services such as the health sector. We are aware that discussions or negotiations with the teacher unions will also be taking place very soon, and our appeal is for teachers to give the negotiators a chance, through negotiations, and make sure that an amicable solution is found without necessarily resorting to strike action. As you would know the greatest losers will be the young kids who are suppose to be learning during this particular period. So we will be making a special appeal to teacher unions, we’ll meet with the unions, to articulate Government’s commitment to enter into genuine negotiations to make sure that solutions are found to the labour disputes that we are experiencing.

Journalist: You said in the statement that the working conditions of the doctors will improve over time. Is Government considering doing something practical right now to improve those conditions to demonstrate good faith from Government’s side, given that some hospitals or some doctors work in really dire conditions?

Themba Maseko: As you receive the Medium Term Strategic Framework you will see Government’s policy commitments - commitments that will indicate where Government is intending to spend resources and trying to make sure that we improve the working conditions in hospitals. So the issue of salaries as I was saying earlier on is high on our priority list as far as healthcare is concerned, but it can’t just end there. We need to make sure that we have sufficient supplies for medical doctors to perform their duties.  We need to make sure that we provide them with all the necessary tools in all the hospitals to make sure that people can receive sufficient medical care in all the medical facilities. But this is something that’s going to take place over time. There is no way that Government can address all the problems overnight, but in the medium term strategic framework we do give a policy direction to say this is where we want to take the health system, because we believe that in fact it’s something that’s been left unattended for too long, and that is why we are identifying this as a priority.

Journalist: I just need some clarity on Mr. Jackie Selebi, was Tuesday his last working day or last day as Police Commissioner, or is he still going to serve another month or two?  I don’t understand. Because there are different reports and if you can just clarify, please.

Themba Maseko: Okay. Mr. Selebi is not in the health sector so at least that we can clarify that. But as far as his position is concerned, the current position as far as I’m aware is that his last day of duty will be end of July. I think the minister of police did try to clarify the matter that the initial thinking was that the end of contract was end of June, but it is end of July. And an announcement will be made later on about firstly his contract and also a replacement. But my understanding at this particular point in time is that it is end of July. Okay, we’re done. We’ll come back to the front. We’ll take that question then come back to you.

Journalist: Back to the doctors, Themba. If Government is genuine about giving better pay to the doctors and better working conditions, why did it take a strike for Government to realise that doctors deserve better pay?

Themba Maseko: Well, there cannot be doubt about whether Government is genuine or not to address the conditions of doctors, so that needs to be made very clear. But again if you recall what the Minister of Health said soon after his appointment, he did acknowledge that is something that needs the urgent attention of Government, and that is why he was able to interact with the national treasury to find the resources to actually put an offer on the table. We do acknowledge that there was a delay in the finalisation of negotiations on the OSD arrangement. That was largely due to the fact that the department of health still had to find their resources to put on the table. So immediately after the election the new minister of health took the matter up and made sure that additional resources were found, and unfortunately by the time he started interacting with the national treasury the doctors had already decided to go on strike. But I can give the unqualified assurance that Government is indeed committed to addressing not just the salary requirements of doctors but also working conditions of all medical staff in the public hospitals.

Journalist: Sorry, but Themba, about that - had doctors not gone on strike, the offer would not have been revised. They would still be sitting with that 7% offer, the initial offer. Surely on Government’s part that was just not sincere there?

Themba Maseko: No, no, it was. I would invite you to go and check the statements that were made by the newly appointed Minister of Health soon after his appointment. He came out publicly and said he was going to take a very clear stance on this matter because he agreed that the salaries of doctors were low. So soon after his appointment he took the steps to make sure that resources were found to make a revised offer to the medical staff.
Journalist: Two comments made yesterday during the finance debate, well, obviously the Minister said that there was a huge shortfall in revenue and the Deputy Minister said that the forthcoming public sector negotiations, salaries were going to have to moderate because for example the occupational specific dispensation had cost more. In this whole context is Government going into the public sector negotiations with a much smaller envelope and is its ability to kind of reach a higher compromise with doctors being limited by the news of the shortfall in revenue that’s come through?

Themba Maseko: As we enter the negotiations with the unions, one of the things that we’re going to have to do as Government is to make sure that we give a detailed explanation to the unions about firstly, the state of the economy especially the recession that we’re going through, and the decline in revenues, and the pressures that it’s putting on state finances, so that we put our cards on the table because that’s one of the most important principles in any negotiations, so we’ll try and do that. So that when we put an offer on the table there will be a thorough understanding by all parties involved about the fiscal constraints that Government is operating within, but at the same time we are committed to making sure that whatever offer we put on the table is as reasonable as possible, but also it must be affordable. So we will do that, explaining the fiscal constraints, but at the same time try and demonstrate that we want to enter negotiations in good faith.  

Journalist: Just on the Minister of Finance’s speech yesterday and his deputy, they stated quite clearly that you know if you’re demanding a wage increase in this time you’re not helping to take the country forward and more and more money will be borrowed for wage increases. So what room is there left for negotiations in any case, and how is the amount given for these increases seen in light of all the money given to Eskom maybe and so forth? I mean how you are weighing up these two scenarios. And just the last two questions, when is the green paper on the economic development ministry and Mr. Manuel’s ministry going to be published this month? And also did they discuss the cost structure of the new Government? We’re quite far into this whole process so there must be some figures being thrown around.

Themba Maseko: Well, again, the point is that we will be explaining to the unions the state of the economy especially with regard to the recession and the fact that the fiscal situation is quite (in) a difficult moment at this particular point in time. However, minister of finance is really on top of the situation and the Government’s mandating committee will interact with the unions and explain fully the kinds of constraints that we’re explaining, but at the same time as I was saying earlier on put offers on the table that we think are reasonable and affordable. And what we also need to explain is that with the limited resources at our disposal, yes we have to manage the risk that we don’t end up using all state resources to increase the salaries of public servants. Because that automatically means there’s less money for all other essential services that we still need to provide for. We still need to buy textbooks for learners, we still need to buy medical supplies- we still need to fix a lot of the things that are broken in our public hospitals. Not all the cash that’s available, for example in the health budget, can actually be thrown into salaries. So we have to manage this complex fiscal constraint that we’re experiencing at this particular point in time. But where I think we can do better as Government is to just make sure that not just the unions but the country understands what it means for us to be in a recession, what are the implications of that? And if we can explain that thoroughly and properly to unions we believe that in fact when we put issues on the table they will be understood. Yes, there are other pressures on the fiscus. A number of the state-owned enterprises are also requesting capital injection, so it’s one of the decisions that we’re going to have to make as Government. So it’s tough times, which call for tough choices to be made. And I believe that under the leadership of the minister of finance, Cabinet will be able to take the correct decisions to make sure that we don’t end up in a worse situation than we were already facing now as far as the fiscus is concerned. So it’s a balancing act that we need to engage in here. Green papers, the ministers in the presidency I think indicated that they will be publishing their green papers by the end of July, but we can confirm that, end of July has been mentioned as a possible date. The cost of the new structure of Government, again no final figures available yet, because we are still in the process of finalising the mandates of the new departments, setting up structures, determining the mandates and programs of action for the various departments. Around the 24th of August, that’s the date on which all departments are expected to submit their budget requirements to the minister of finance. So around the end of August we can be able to give you some indicative numbers about the cost of the new structure.

Journalist: Thanks. I mean with the recession now it’s easier to understand that not all state resources could be put into wage increases, but do you think workers are going to buy that argument because that’s the same argument that’s been made every year at the start of wage negotiations, even when the budget wasn’t running at a deficit. So I mean given that that’s the argument that’s been used in the past even when the country did have money to pay them, do you think they’re going to buy that now? And just another question, doctors from SAMA in the Western Cape have been calling for the Director General of Health to be fired or to resign, Mr. Thami Mseleku, was there any sense in Cabinet that heads will roll?

Themba Maseko: I’ll start with the easy question, the last one. No, no discussion on the matter of the DG to be fired or resign. The matter did not arise at the Cabinet meeting. Whether workers will buy the argument that we are in a recession, unfortunately I’m not in a position to answer for the workers. But all I am saying here is that it’s absolutely essential for the leaders of the unions, firstly. But secondly, for the country as a whole to understand what this recession means for our economy, the constraints that it presents to us as Government, but at the same time we will be making reasonable offers to the unions. But it becomes important for them as a respond to the Government offer to understand that we are going through a recession, and one of the most immediate consequences of this recession is that there is a decline in tax collections both from individuals and most importantly companies, because companies are recording lower profits because of the recession. So everybody needs to understand that. If you understand that then you are then in a better position to respond to Government’s offer. But it’s something that we need to leave to the negotiators to negotiate and fully understand. Our responsibility as Government is to put the facts on the table and let the unions respond to our offer on this understanding of the fiscal environment.

Journalist: Themba, you’ve told us how Government is committed and you know genuine and acknowledging all the problems now, which is all very well and good, but my question is how did this happen and what is the problem, and when that we have teachers and doctors and police who are notoriously underpaid and that doctors are pushed to stay away from sick patients, when did the problem come in? It must have been even before the OSD negotiations started. I mean, where’s the problem?

Themba Maseko: Well, the problem is a historic problem. The issue of low salaries of people working in the public service is something that has gone on for many decades in this country. We have engaged in negotiations with the unions ever since the ruling party’s Government came into power 15 years ago. So the salaries have been reviewed over the years. The question that arises is whether the salary adjustments that have been implemented over the years have kept pace with the demands of people working in those sectors, and what this current environment is clearly indicating is that the pace of the increments has not actually been fast enough to meet the needs of doctors, nurses and policemen, etcetera, etcetera. So that’s indeed a challenge that we’re acknowledging as Government, and that we are committed to doing something about it, but when did the problems start? We’re talking literally decades of years when teachers and doctors have been underpaid and we believe that in fact we’re at a point where we can correct some of the mistakes made by this Government and previous Governments, and we believe that a solution will be found. But at the same time you’ve got to understand that Government has had to deal not just with the challenge of salaries, because you also had to put a lot of resources into improving service delivery, making sure that resources are spread and allocated equally to salaries to other services that need to be provided. Because if all we did was to just improve the salaries of teachers and doctors, chances are that we’d not have been able to address the many other needs that the nation faces. So it’s a process that’s taking a long time and it will still take a very, very long time to resolve. But what you are getting is a firm commitment from Government to begin a process of addressing these matters, and that is why the notion of OSD was introduced in the Chamber, to say let’s try and speed up the pace of adjusting the salaries of these specialised workers in the public service. And that’s what we’re trying to address.

Journalist: Themba, you said earlier that the healthcare sector has been left unattended for too long. How does this then reflect on the priorities of the previous health ministers?

Themba Maseko: Well, the fact of the matter is that this Government has made some major inroads in terms of addressing challenges in the health sector, including salaries. But the current reality is indicating quite clearly that we did not move fast enough in terms of addressing issues such as salaries of doctors. And that is why even in the Chamber there was agreement that we needed to come up with a new solution to the problem, and that is why the notion of OSD was introduced in the talks, to try and speed up the pace of addressing the salaries of these professionals in the various sectors. So that’s essentially an acknowledgement on the part of both Government and the unions that we needed to accelerate the pace of negotiations through the introduction of the OSD phenomenon which I believe is going to go a long way towards addressing the challenges that exist in the sector. Okay?

Journalist: Is it reasonable and how will you do it to persuade the unions and the workers that they must accept the fiscal constraints, that they must effectively accept less when Government is going to be spending billions and billions on what are essentially unessential changes in its structure? Surely the structural changes to Government should have been held back until we withdrew this fiscal crunch, but with 60 billion bucks less, and now we’re going to take five or six billion to fatten Government, and you’re going to say to some poor teacher no sorry you can only have 10 rand rather than 20.

Themba Maseko: Well, let’s look at it this way. You have a new Government that’s been elected, that’s given a mandate, and that Government coming in and saying we’ve got to make sure that we have the appropriate structures that will enable us to address the challenges that we face. We have made certain commitments in the election manifesto to improve the way in which we provide services to our citizens, and this Government is saying we need to make sure that we have the appropriate structures, the appropriate levels to make sure that every aspect of the mandate has somebody making sure that we address the challenges in that particular sector. So that’s part of what Government is doing. So in explaining and in negotiating with the unions, that argument may or may not arise. But our job as Government is to explain that we changed the structures, we have reconfigured Government because we believe that we needed a new structure to accelerate delivery of services to our citizens. Classical example, we have identified education as a priority of this Government, and that is why this new Government has decided to separate higher education from secondary education so that you can have structures focusing specifically on the higher education sector and the primary education sector to make sure that we can address those kinds of challenges. So the argument yes will arise, but our job as Government is to explain what we are trying to achieve.

Journalist: Themba, did Cabinet discuss developments with regard to the public broadcaster and request for a two billion bailout?

Themba Maseko: Developments within the public broadcaster were not discussed specifically, largely because there was a process unfolding in Parliament. So the executive needed to make sure that we give Parliament a chance to deal with all the other problems we dealt with. However, at the meeting in discussing the fiscal pressures that we’re experiencing as Government, the issue of state entities requiring capital injection was noted as some of the challenges that will have to be addressed in the medium term budget expenditure framework that will be delivered in Parliament. So it was identified as one of the challenges that we are facing. But no specific decision was taken as far as injection to the SABC. Oh, sorry, you were next.

Journalist: Themba, an argument that did arise frequently during the strike is that it’s somehow obscene for doctors to have to show understanding and get low salaries while ministers are very well remunerated and have very nice cars. I mean, does Cabinet hear that sentiment? Is it prepared to undertake [unclear] measures, as its own sort of token of understanding?

Themba Maseko: Yeah, let me refer you to what we say in the statement. We say very clearly that we’ve heard what the doctors are saying. We fully understand and appreciate the difficult circumstances under which they’re operating and that is why the Minister of Health had lengthy sessions with national treasury to get additional funds allocated to improve the package of doctors. And I think we have made a qualitative improvement in the way in which we pay our doctors. We are not solving the problem, and we don’t believe that it’s possible to solve the problem overnight. But we’ve made extensive progress in terms of addressing the needs and requirements of our medical doctors, and we believe that over time as negotiations unfold we will be able to address a lot of the challenges that still remain as far as the package of doctors are concerned. So it’s something that we are addressing to the best of our ability as Government, and we are very sensitive to the plight of doctors as we state in the statement.

Journalist: You say here that you know due to the bleak fiscal outlook and declining state revenue the department will be required to review their spending plans, you know, to ensure effective and efficient use of public money. I remember former minister of finance Trevor Manuel was saying right here that… actually in Parliament, that you know departments were going to have to cut on some excesses like you know too much travelling and entertainment and all those things. Has that been done by departments? Have departments been able to save money? How much more would you like to see being cut by the departments themselves in order to save money here, and what hasn’t been done? I mean, have they followed that? Have they taken heed of that? And is there less travelling? Is there less entertainment? Are there fewer excesses in Government as a whole?

Themba Maseko: It’s happening already. All departments were informed that the original allocations that they got in the budgets would be reduced by whatever percentage. So all of us as accounting officers know that our budgets have been reduced, but secondly what was agreed at the meeting yesterday was that ministers and DGs need to take much more proactive action to make sure that they identify areas of wastage in the various departments to make sure that we spend the public resources efficiently and effectively. Budgets that are spent on meals or food in departments, travelling, are being slashed as we speak. I will give you just one classical example in my own department. We decided that we will slash our budget for food by more than 80%, so you’ll see more and more meetings being held outside of lunch hours so that people can… people from outside who are coming for meetings will have those meetings outside of eating hours. So that if there is anything you provide it will just be tea and water and some biscuits as you’ll see outside here. So the… so I mean we are getting the message clear and loud. One of the decisions for instance discussed at the Cabinet meeting yesterday was that for international conferences the practise of hundreds of Government officials attending UN meetings and sessions will come to an end, so ministers will take the responsibility to make sure that only officials who need to attend an international conference will attend. So ministers are taking this thing on and realise that they as ministers together with their DGs are going to have to take the lead and demonstrate how expenditure will be cut. I had to as an example, diverting a little bit here, for instance we normally have a budget Lekgotla in my department and we invite deputy directors, so it’s a meeting of 120 people, you have to accommodate and feed those people. So we’ve decided to cut down on the size of the meetings, so it’s only directors and chief directors who’ll attend, so deputy directors have been cut off and they’re very upset as we speak that they’re not going to be attending this kind of meeting. But those are some examples demonstrating that as Government we are getting the message loud and clear and we have to lead by example. So we will reduce expenditure. And I think you’ll see it over time because the message is being seen and realised by Ministers and DGs at the highest level.

Journalist: Am I allowed to go back to policing? Yesterday the Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa said that there will be possible changes to section 49 of the criminal procedure act. Now this section was amended seven years ago to prevent the police from shooting suspects running away from them. Does this mean there will be a policy change? The way Government is going to fight crime, will we see a more forceful way of handling the situation, what does this actually mean.

Themba Maseko: Well, let me plead ignorance on the details of what this actually means. We’ll take that matter up and just get the ministry of police to explain further what was meant by that, but what I can confirm without any doubt is a firm commitment to deal with the scourge of crime in this country. We have come to realise that if there’s one thing that’s doing untold damage to the country’s reputation is the issue of crime, and therefore the ministry of police has a mandate to do whatever is necessary to make sure that we increase our capability to fight crime. What the amendment to the section will translate to I’m unable to say at this stage. But we can assist you to get the answers from the minister. Yes.

Journalist: Now Themba you say at the meeting there was a brief discussion about the number of state entities who require capital injection. Outside the SABC and the usual suspect, Denel and SAA, which others require…

Themba Maseko: Well, what the Minister of Finance (Pravin Gordhan) indicated that there are pressures, calls from a number of state entities without necessarily mentioning the name here today. There are quite a number of institutions or entities that have come to the state say we need additional resources. So as part of the mix the Government will be looking at all of those entities and deciding which deserve the most in terms of capital injection, especially in the context of limited fiscal resources. So at this stage I’d rather not mention the various companies.

Themba Maseko (Government Spokesperson)   
Cell: 083 645 0810

Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)