ANC boards the gravy train: John Carlin in Johannesburg on the underdogs who have become fat cats in a few months

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SOUTH AFRICAN cabinet ministers earn three times more a month than the average worker does in a year. Once you include the minister's obligatory Mercedes, housing, travel, and other allowances, the disparity becomes significantly greater.

Most cabinet ministers are members of the African National Congress. Before the elections in April, Trevor Manuel, who is now Minister of Trade and Industry, would have been earning about 70,000 rands ( pounds 12,500) a year at ANC headquarters in Johannesburg, where an ANC secretary would have been earning R35,000. Today Mr Manuel earns R475,000 a year, while the secretary, if shifting to a similar job in the civil service, would be earning R24,000.

What has happened is that Mr Manuel and the other 17 ANC ministers in the government of national unity have leapt the old apartheid divide into the income territory traditionally occupied by white company directors, while the secretary would have slid deeper into the black working class, where the average salary is R14,000 a year - a privilege in itself, given that 50 per cent of the adult black population has no job at all.

Nelson Mandela promised in his election victory speech that the era of the fat cats was over, that 'the government of the people' would tolerate no more gravy trains. What he failed to anticipate was that the gap between government and people would widen after the dawn of democracy.

When F W de Klerk was president, he made R266,000 a year. President Mandela's basic pay is R575,000 - plus car allowance of R115,000 and free residence in Pretoria and Cape Town. All ministerial salaries have risen in similarly dramatic proportions since May.

Those representatives of the people who lacked either the good fortune or the inclination to enter government have been ironically echoing Mr Mandela's victory speech promises. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the ANC's most powerful ally in the liberation struggle, has called for an end to 'the gravy- train mentality'. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said last week that the new government had 'stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on'.

Mr Manuel himself picked up the refrain last week. He said MPs should set an example to the private sector, which earned 'Wall Street salaries while workers get Indonesian pay'. As an 'act of patriotism', Mr Manuel, said, MPs should legislate a reduction of their salaries.

His comrades in the 252- strong parliamentary caucus - there are 400 MPs in all - have not responded well to his appeal. They are muttering that it is he, as a minister, who has become a fat cat, and not they. The figures show that, for example, former Cosatu officials who were earning R1,500 a month until liberation in April are making 10 times as much in their new roles as MPs. But, unless they happen to live in Cape Town where parliament is based, they now have to keep two houses and two cars. And besides, the after-tax income of ordinary MPs is as it was under the previous regime: around R12,000 a month.

The real issue, as Archbishop Tutu has indicated, concerns those at ministerial level and above.

Deputy President Thabo Mbeki has been among those who have raised their hands defensively and said, 'It's nothing to do with us.' The new salary scales were determined by a commission set up by the previous government. The commission justified the increases in the light of the need to attract 'the best people' to government, by awarding them salaries comparable to those of top earners in the private sector.

Archbishop Tutu is not impressed by the argument that the ANC has had no choice but to inherit the commission's recommendations. In the same way, many others have failed to be impressed by Mr Mbeki's explanation when it emerged that his two official residences are being refurbished at a cost to the taxpayer of R4m. He said that Mr de Klerk's government had taken the decision earlier this year.

Newspaper reports have revealed that, in another instance of embarrassing spending, silver-plated cutlery costing R2.4m has been purchased from the Queen's Sheffield cutler, Arthur Price, for the six residences of President Mandela and deputy presidents Mbeki and de Klerk.

A senior official at the Department of Public Works commented that 'knowing Mr Mandela, he would not have a clue about these things'. Mr Mandela himself, indeed, is the only leading political figure to have acknowledged the excessive size of his salary, by creating a President's Fund for underprivileged children to which he personally is contributing R150,000 a year.

As a minimum, a number of South African commentators have suggested, more such gestures are required from Mr Mandela's cabinet subordinates - especially at a time when the labour force is showing some reluctance to heed the government's call for all South Africans to tighten their belts and pull together to rebuild the economy.

A two-week strike by car workers is costing the country R30m a day, but the Minister of Industry must find it awkward to complain when they are earning R1,850 a month to his R40,000.

'The government,' Archbishop Tutu said, 'cannot with any integrity and credibility ask the unions to moderate their claims for higher pay.'

The archbishop's words have not fallen on deaf ears. In the past week the ANC has acknowledged the validity of the fat-cat debate and announced that it will re-examine the government salaries.

For the moment, however, Winnie Mandela's complaint while she was out of political favour last year that the ANC leaders were rushing 'with unseemly haste to wrap themselves in the silken sheets of power' seems prophetic.

Not that she appears to remember those words now that she is Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture. Not only has she cheerfully pocketed a salary of R372,000, it emerged in parliament last week, but between May and July she spent R21,799 on bodyguards. This is 40 per cent of the combined total spent by the other 39 ministers and deputy ministers, most of whom - providing a reminder that some cats are fatter than others - have spent nothing at all on personal security.

(Photograph omitted)