How much South Africa’s top government officials earn is always a hot topic. Amid rising inflation, fuel price hikes and rolling electricity blackouts, the country’s members of parliament (MPs) prepared to accept a salary increase in June 2022.
Responding to criticism, parliament’s spokesperson, Moloto Mothapo, claimed MPs in South Africa received relatively modest salaries.
“A desktop survey suggests that South African public representatives do not earn anywhere higher than those of countries with similar GDP and population, amongst other considerations,” he wrote in a statement.
A reader asked us to take a closer look at the claim. Here’s what we found.
How is MP pay determined in South Africa?
The basic salaries of MPs and other public officials are guided by the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers.
Each year the commission recommends to the president how the salaries of public officials should be updated in the coming year. The president then officially accepts or rejects these recommendations.
For example, in 2019 the commission recommended that ministers, deputy ministers, the deputy president, and the president all received a 3% increase to their total remuneration.
President Cyril Ramaphosa rejected this recommendation, keeping the salaries unchanged. He also gave ordinary national assembly (NA) and national council of provinces (NCOP) members a 2.8% salary increase, instead of the 4% increase recommended by the commission.
As of June 2022, the yearly salary of ordinary NA and NCOP members was set at R1,172,071. And basic salaries vary. The speakers of the NA and NCOP earn nearly two and a half times this amount (over R2.9-million annually). For more, read our factsheet on what MPs earn and what they do it for.
Peter Makapan, head of secretariat at the remuneration commission, told Africa Check that he could not confirm Mothapo’s claim about how South African MPs’ pay compared to other countries.
The recommendations made by the commission are informed by a review process conducted in 2008 and have been adjusted for inflation, he said.
So, is there evidence for Mothapo’s claim?
Claim based on years-old data
Africa Check asked Mothapo to share the “desktop survey” he quoted. He told us to “refer to the research conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union”.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union, or IPU, represents several international parliaments, providing them with guidance on major issues such as countering terrorism and addressing gender inequality in law-making. It has conducted surveys on the structure of international parliaments and their member salaries.
But Africa Check could not find a survey comparing South African MPs’ salaries to their counterparts in countries with similar GDPs and populations.
Gross domestic product, or GDP, is the total value of all goods and services produced in a country in one year. It is a common measure of a country’s economic performance.
When contacted again, Mothapo shared a graph comparing the annual basic salaries of MPs in 11 countries: South Africa, Germany, Canada, Australia, Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, India and Brazil.
South Africa ranked second-lowest, above India.
Mothapo told Africa Check that the graph contained “information extracted from” the survey he quoted. A note under the graph credits the IPU, but we could not locate the original in any IPU publications, or on the IPU website.
The graph does not include any context on how the 11 countries were chosen for comparison. It does not seem to be comparing “countries with similar GDP and population”, as Mothapo claimed.
The US has a GDP per capita almost 10 times greater than South Africa. The GDP per capita of Australia is 8.6 times greater than South Africa’s, Germany’s is 7.3 times greater and Israel’s is 7.4 times greater. (GDP per capita is the GDP of a country divided by its population.)
The information in the graph was also published in 2015, seven years before Mothapo made this claim. According to the IPU, the basic salaries of South African MPs increased by over 10% between 2015 and 2020 (from R1,033,438 to R1,140,000). This suggests that while the graph may have been correct in 2015, it may not be accurate in 2022.
Mothapo later shared a 2015 article by the Indian fact-checking organisation Factly, which included a similar graph. The article compared the basic salary of public representatives in various countries to those of Indian MPs.
The article included identical figures to those in the graph Mothapo shared and also quoted the IPU. Except it quoted an IPU survey from 2012.
What recent data exists, and what can it tell us?
When compared to similar countries, South Africa pays its MPs more
South African newspaper the Citizen also investigated Mothapo’s claims. Using more recent salary data, and comparing countries with similar sized GDPs, it concluded that South African MPs earn much more than their international counterparts. In some cases, South African salaries were more than double those paid to public representatives in other countries.
Earl Coetzee, the Citizen’s digital editor, told Africa Check that he had compared South African MP salaries to countries “either directly below or above us in terms of GDP per capita”. He made the comparisons by converting salary data from the IPU into South African rands.
As recorded by the World Bank, the six countries with the closest GDP per capita to South Africa are Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Peru, with slightly lower GDP per capita, and Thailand, Belarus and Botswana, with slightly higher GDP per capita. The IPU does not have data on the basic salary of ministers in Belarus, but it does record this for each other country.
Purchasing power an important consideration
But there are a couple of factors that have not been considered in the Citizen’s investigation. In the data Mothapo shared with Africa Check, salaries had been converted into the equivalent purchasing power in US dollars.
Purchasing power parity (or PPP) is a measure of how much different currencies are able to purchase. It is calculated based on the price of several basic goods in each country.
To explain the concept, the World Bank uses the example of buying hamburgers. In this example “for every €1.00 spent on hamburgers in France, $0.83 would have to be spent in the United States to obtain the same quantity and quality – that is, the same volume – of hamburgers”. This means that the PPP of the US dollar in the US is slightly higher than the euro’s in France.
PPP is not the same as the exchange rate between the two currencies. It also accounts for the price of goods in each country. So while France, Italy and Spain all use the euro, which has a single exchange rate with the US dollar, one euro would have different PPP in each country because of different prices.
The graph and article Mothapo shared both included salaries calculated in PPP-adjusted US dollars. This gives an idea not just of how much ministers earn, but how much purchasing power their salaries have in their respective countries.
So Africa Check adjusted more recent salary data to allow for accurate comparisons.
It’s important to note that ministers may receive very different benefits or allowances on top of a basic salary. The IPU lists basic salary data from 2020 for three of the five countries examined by the Citizen, while Peru’s data is from 2019, and Botswana’s from 2017.
The IPU lists a basic salary for South African members of the NA and NCOP of R1.14-million, in 2020. This is almost correct. In the 2019/20 financial year, ordinary MPs could earn a total of R 1,137,933, which rounds to R1.14-million. This remained the same in 2020/21.
We said earlier that, as of June 2022, MPs earned R1,172,071 per year. For the purposes of comparison, we will use the older salary data, to more accurately compare it to the salaries on record for other countries.
The data shows that South African MPs earned more than MPs from any other country with a similar GDP per capita. In some cases, South Africa MPs earned much more – in 2020, North Macedonian MPs earned the equivalent of 29.5% of their South African colleagues.
Of course, GDP and population size are not the only considerations. The remuneration commission, in its 2019 annual report, suggested that Brazil, Germany and Russia make particularly good countries for benchmarking salaries in the South African judicial sector, in part because they were, “countries with similar governance systems and judiciary reforms” and because of “other factors like (GDP, and development of countries)”.
Africa Check asked what other countries the commission considered appropriate for benchmarking salaries of public office bearers. During the first major review report in 2008 the commission conducted formal study tours to Australia, Canada, the United Nations, the USA, the UK, Botswana, Germany, India, Nigeria, Finland and Indonesia, Makapan said.
Except for Russia, all of the countries listed as benchmarking candidates have salary data listed on the IPU website, so we converted it into PPP-adjusted US dollars.
By this metric, these countries also tend to pay their MPs less than South Africa does. Only Brazil and the US paid public representatives more than South Africa. Members of the US house of representatives earned around 106.2% of NA members. In Brazil, federal senate and chamber of deputies members received around 105.9% of South African NA members.
Some countries paid almost the same as South Africa, in particular Germany at 94.7%. However, some paid far less. Indonesian MPs earned only 23.5% of South Africans in 2020.
Conclusion: South African MPs earn a much higher basic salary than representatives in many other countries
Parliamentary spokesperson Moloto Mothapo claimed in June 2022 that South African members of parliament do not earn more than those of countries with similar gross domestic products and populations.
The claim is incorrect. The basic salary of a South African MP has a higher purchasing power than that of a public representative in many other countries.
Whether comparing countries with a similar GDP per capita, or those which South Africa’s own remuneration commission has used to set benchmarks in the past, South African MPs earn more than their international counterparts.
Written by Keegan Leech, Researcher