Home Affairs is not only "critically" understaffed, but its employees take what Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma describes as "enormous and unexplained" sick leave.

From April to August last year, Home Affairs staff took a total of 34 647 sick days, an average of 6 929 a month, Dlamini-Zuma said in answer to a question by DA Home Affairs spokesperson Juanita Terblanche.

She said there was an "enormous, unexplained" increase in sick leave days in June, a month after she was appointed. In the period April, 2008-March, 2009, the sick leave taken averaged 2 312 days a month, or 27 746 in total. The figures for sick leave taken in December - 9 998 days - pushed up the figure for the 12-month period.

Terblanche said she would present these figures to the portfolio committee. She also expressed concern about serious staff shortages at Home Affairs. Dlamini-Zuma has revealed that 693 critical posts had to be filled by next month.

"It is therefore clear that the Department of Home Affairs is not only facing rampant absenteeism, but has also still yet to resolve the huge vacancy issues," Terblanche said. She quoted Dlamini-Zuma as saying no action had been taken against officials who took sick leave, as it had been authorised.

Terblanche said, however, there was likely to be a deeper problem at Home Affairs with the organisational culture, which was causing a "major lack of staff morale".

"The minister should not be dismissing this issue with such a lack of concern. A trebling of sick days is indicative of a department facing a very serious problem," she said.

Terblanche said she was also concerned about revelations that some acting managers had been in their positions since August, 2004, including the chief director for permits in the immigration services division.

"Again, this is the hallmark of serious bureaucratic malaise and a department with no coherent strategy to resolve its problems."

Other unfilled senior management positions included deputy directors-general, directors, chief directors, regional managers and policy and strategy heads.

Terblanche said the vacancies affected key areas such as human resources, permits and port control, asylum seeker management, the refugee appeal board and financial administration.

Personnel shortages also affected airports, with staffing levels at Pilanesberg International at 21 percent and Durban International at 43 percent.

Staffing levels at Cape Town International (93 percent) and OR Tambo International (84 percent) were the highest.

In his State of the Nation address last year, President Jacob Zuma promised a more efficient and friendlier public service.

He has also repeatedly warned that lazy public servants will be fired.

By Carien Du Plessis / IOL / Political Bureau