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South African politicians, not bureaucrats, stand in the way of a professional civil service

The country’s civil service is notorious for wasteful expenditure.
South Africa has seen a sharp rise in protests due to incompetence within its civil service. Image: EFE-EPA/Nic Bothma

The post-Covid-19 world will demand that governments do more with less, or at least spend within their means. Economic activity has ground to a halt. In South Africa’s case, the country was in bad shape even before the pandemic.

Covid-19 coincided with the downgrading of the country’s credit status to junk. More than three million people have since lost their jobs as companies shut down, reducing revenue collection. Estimates put the shortfall in revenue collection for last year between R150 billion and R250 billion (US$9.8bn-$16.3bn).

South Africa’s civil service, however, is notorious for wasteful expenditure. According to the Auditor General, in national and provincial departments alone for the year 2017/18, the amount wasted stood at a staggering R2.57 billion. The government’s recently released policy framework, in which it decries the lack of professionalism in the public service and recommits government to fix the problem, is therefore welcome.

But there is a problem with the framework in its current form. It is overly focused on the administration. The real problem has more to do with politics. Yes, it’s true that the appointment of incompetent and uncaring civil servants has had a corrosive effect on government’s ability to do its job. And there may well be a substantial number of personnel who occupy positions for which they are unqualified. But all this has largely been caused, if not enabled, by politics.

History of political appointments

Democratic South Africa did not start off with an independent bureaucracy when apartheid ended in 1994. Politics took priority over the bureaucracy. This was a necessary ordering of priorities for the new government, led by the African National Congress (ANC), to stand a chance of making any meaningful change.

An agreement reached before the first democratic elections included what became known as the “sunset clause”, which prescribed that apartheid bureaucrats be kept in their posts for the first five years of democracy. This created an odd situation. It meant that President Nelson Mandela’s newly elected administration would have to rely on apartheid bureaucrats to implement its policies of transformation.

But Mandela’s government ministers distrusted apartheid bureaucrats to implement their policies.

This vignette illustrates the point. A stalwart of the ANC, Mac Maharaj, whom Mandela appointed to the cabinet, inherited C.F. Scheepers as his director general at the Department of Transport.

Maharaj explained the predicament facing new ministers to his biographer, Padraig O’Malley  (Shades of Difference pp 406, 2007).

Some of our people’s wariness was so strong that it literally translated to ‘I won’t show it, but I’m going to get rid of this bastard as quickly as possible. Not because the man is bad, but because I proceed from the assumption that he comes from the old guard. I want somebody else from my ranks that I have confidence in.’

Maharaj chose to work closely with fellow activist Ketso Gordhan, whom he had appointed as special advisor.

Gordhan succeeded Scheepers as director general. A critical consideration in his appointment was familiarity with Maharaj. Not that Gordhan did not deserve the job. He had the competence that made him a leading and innovative public servant. But technical competence alone would not have got Maharaj to hire Gordhan. He still needed a track record of political activism.

Considering political affiliation a precondition for public service employment was more than a necessity. It was not new and had been prefigured by the apartheid government. As political journalists Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom revealed in their 1978 book The Super-Afrikaners: Inside the Afrikaner Broederbond, no-one could be appointed into any meaningful position, not even inspector of a school district, without being a member of the Afrikaner Broederbond, the secretive and exclusive intellectual vanguard of Afrikaner nationalism.

Gordhan’s appointment at director general in the first post-apartheid administration was partly enabled by the newly created Department of Public Service and Administration. It divested the old Public Service Commission of the responsibility for appointments. This placed politicians in charge of senior appointments in the public service. Although appointed partly on account of political loyalty, most director generals were technically qualified. Most acquitted themselves superbly in their new posts.

So what went wrong?

Meddling minister

At some point, some of these senior appointees were behaving unprofessionally.

This was partly due to meddling from their political principals. Some senior executives, as we now hear from testimonies at the Zondo Commission on State Capture, caved in because they got a share of the favours they bestowed on their principals. Others carried out irregular instructions due to close personal relations. Some opted to leave the public service instead of capitulating to pressure to commit misdemeanours or flout policies  (Maserumule, pp 197, 2013).

To its credit, the proposed policy implementation framework identifies political meddling in administration as one of the problems that requires remedying.

Yet none of the programmes it proposes – such as training, rotation among departments and secondment to academic institutions – are geared towards this problem. All target the bureaucrats. But ministers are just as blameworthy for lack of professionalism. Professionalism has to start with ministers for it to stand any chance of being embedded throughout the public service.

The proposed involvement of the Public Service Commission in the selection process may help. It will ensure appointment of personnel without any affinities to political heads.

This will protect them from political pressure. Having their job performance evaluated independently, which is not clearly spelt out in this framework, could also bolster the independence of bureaucrats. They will do their jobs freely without fear of dismissal if they disobey their political principals.

Ultimately, though, without ministers themselves being professional, the public service faces a tall order in achieving this goal. Their unprofessional conduct frustrates administrators and makes the work environment toxic.

There are countless instances of ministers changing the focus of the ministry, without completing existing programmes. These arbitrary changes betray a lack of appreciation for how long policies take to bear fruition. Instead, they insist on quick results, which entail cutting corners. By the end of their tenure, they have not only aborted what was a promising programme at the start of the term, but also have nothing show for their term.

Ministers too must be inducted. They clearly need it.

Mcebisi Ndletyana is the author of the Anatomy of the ANC in Power: Insights from Port Elizabeth, 1990 – 2019 (HSRC, 2020).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

COMMENTS   16

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You can add another few hundred thousand to the 3 million or so job losses due to the liquor industry’s blanket shut down

The ANC did not consult the industry, and there you have it

SAB and Consol withdrawing investments worth Billions

Interesting, that after the announcement, the ANC now want to have discussions to curb it?

It boggles the mind how they think (I don’t indulge in alcohol)

It mostly the ANC as a party that stands in the way of a professional civil service.

The ANC have had this patronage political system since 94, catapulting incompetent and corrupt cadres into positions that they cannot do and who simply outsource complex tasks that they are supposed to do to third parties.

The problem is that now you have a deep level of intrenched corruption right throughout every level of civil service, municipal, provincial and national and very little competencies.

The problem is the ANC, its policies and incompetence.

Can we add to that slogan on the banner? “No representation, no taxation?”.

You still paying tax?

The SA state is a dysfunctional mess. The only sane course of action left is to try to downsize it, and give more of the economy to the private sector. Keeping things as they are will only accelerate our economic decline.

True. Here are some my reasons why government is failing.

I see, in news24 today, Gift of the Givers has just upgraded nurses quarters in EC; within one month. Last yeardug boreholes for communities in the Karoo. To procure Covid vaccines; the med aids and insurance companies contributed.

We are going to see more of private companies taking over the job the government; and guess what…. government will start tell communities to seek private companies to do the work of government service delivery.

With treasury’s purse empty and the 1st world economies (and even Brics) not willing to extend SA credit; we have been relegated to junk in more ways that one.

The “leader” of this lot just said there is no money for relieve packages. So they cant help.

YET!!!! What was the “thinking” Hahaha thinking might be exaggerating a bit.

When they stop people (including their children) from getting food because the parents work in an industry where alcohol is sold. What are you actually doing when they die of hunger because of you blanket ban on alcohol?? What is the crime called????

Their primative thinking is to try and save a few drunks from themselves as they did not allow for enough beds and then they advertise it as a great achievement??

Nothing about “professional service” from anybody. The politicians and the deployed cadres.

TSK!!!!

Bureaucracy was purposefully mixed in with politics because it allows the political party to divide a society whilst they carry out the party’s mandate of preferential service delivery to those who support their claim to power.

There will forever be a corrupt form of governance regardless of who is political party is in the country, we need to separate Business, Politics and Governance.

The Salary paying Tax Payers need to have the right in the selection of Governance Employees which will be in contrast to the politicians who should Administrate Laws, International affairs and hold the Service Delivering Entities of the country to account.

How much further does the people of this country need to suffer before we all hit rock bottom?

I don’t think the bottom has been found yet. Think Zimbabwe.

Poor article – the author does not want to call a spade a spade. The ruling party is a bunch of crooks and remains in power thanks to the electorate and the power of patronage politics.

South Africa needs to eradicate the pigs and the troughs and maintain a professional civil service who retain their jobs and ensure continuity of expertise and knowledge irrespective of who the current majority government is?

It looks like Moneyweb has outsourced the vetting of comments to the ANC. It really is quite sad.

Like most of Africa, we are cursed with bad government. Our policies are just so stupid you don’t know where to start.

While the economy crashes and we don’t order vaccines, all of governments energies are focussed on keeping people off beaches.

How is stupidity at this level even possible?

Ag, stop worrying. Its crashing and in many places it has already totally crashed. Nothing you, I or Moneyweb can say will change it. The bush grows over the ruins of the deserted towns, literally and metaphorically. Africa reverts to the historical mean, always. Enjoy your bubble, then go ‘home’ or make a new one. They don’t want us here, never did. BTW, if you are growing your wealth in ZAR then you only have yourself to blame.

Pity the unemployable for they know not what they do.

Oops sorry meant politicians.

An excellent article. Concise and precise!

End of comments.

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