Consumer Fair chairman Thami Bolani disclosed this week that more than 60% of the public servants who had recently sought financial counselling from his nonprofit organisation have more than two garnishee orders.
Bolani said teachers were the worst affected. But Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said private sector labourers were also hard hit to the extent that their entire salaries were "swallowed" by garnishee orders.
Simply put, a garnishee order is the common term used to describe an emoluments attachment order, which gives a credit provider the right to dock wages or salary in repayment of a debt.
"Garnishee orders were the fuel behind the Marikana strikes because creditors go into bank accounts of miners and leave them with a zero balance," Vavi said.
"We can't continue having a situation where mashonisas (loan sharks, or black market micro-lenders) have money readily available for lending to anyone, but it later becomes difficult for employees to repay the loan and they end up being hit with garnishee orders."
Speaking at the Nedbank and Mail & Guardian Critical Thinking Forum, outspoken academic and political commentator Mamphela Ramphele blamed the government and trade unions for failing to ensure that public servants, including teachers, earned a decent income, which she said could help prevent their falling into debt traps.
Ramphele said the government and unions were well aware of the financial troubles faced by public servants but were not doing anything.
"The government and unions use employees who are in financial distress as voting fodder instead of acting as a support structure," she said.
"This is why most teachers were demoralised in attending to their jobs," Ramphele said.
South African Democratic Teachers' Union secretary Mugwena Maluleke said they were aware that teachers were badly indebted.
Most teachers earn between R150000 and R380000 a year. Naptosa's Ezra Ramasehla said teachers are mostly in debt because of loan sharks.
"Teachers need a lot of financial literacy and we are getting financial institutions to help them," Ramasehla said.
Maluleke said the union had not been successful because teachers were not willing to open up about their financial problems.
"No one wants people to know they are indebted," Maluleke said.
"It is easier when we get the institutions to help them than doing it ourselves."