Let us not all get too carried away as Barrack Obama has led the world in paying tribute to Nelson Mandela on the centenary of his birth. Major parts of Mr Mandela's legacy are the implementation of racial demographics in the public sector and the Employment Equity Act of 1998.
In the first place, that Act provided for race classification to be reintroduced into the workplace less than a decade after the National Party (NP) government had repealed its notorious Population Registration Act of 1950. Secondly, tens of thousands of government jobs were opened up to cadre deployment and the corruption that has gone with it. And thirdly, the Mandela government's racial policies contributed to the steady decline of efficiency in the public sector.
It was of course a bit rich for him to complain, but Marthinus van Schalkwyk, NP leader at the time, had a point when he said that the employment equity legislation was "re-racialising" South Africa. Among other things, this legislation provided for fines of up to R500 000 for a first offence for employers failing to meet racial (and other) targets in the composition of their workforces.
But the real damage to South Africa has been in the public sector. In 1995, two years before the Act was first tabled in bill form, the Mandela government published a White Paper on Affirmative Action in the Public Service, one of whose requirements was that 50% of senior managers had to be black by 1999. The African National Congress (ANC) repeatedly complained that "racist" whites were "over-represented" at management levels, one result of which was that around 120 000 white civil servants had left by the end of Mr Mandela's term of office in 1999 or not long thereafter.
This meant a catastrophic loss of expertise and institutional memory. Moreover, as the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) pointed out, it also opened up tens of thousands of jobs into which party cadres could be deployed in pursuit of the ANC's goal of controlling "all levers of power" as reiterated in a policy document published in 1998. These "levers" included "the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence structures, the judiciary, parastatals, and agencies such as regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank, and so on". Thus was laid the foundation for what has recently become known as "state capture".
The racial targets for the public service were steadily raised. The 50% for senior managers had been raised to 75% by 2003. Instead of being a systematic programme to equip aspirant public servants with the appropriate skills, affirmative action became a question of meeting racial targets based on crude demographics without sufficient attention being paid to such factors as experience, age, and level of education.
Signs that the public sector was on the road to ruin were soon apparent – long before anyone had ever heard of the Guptas and before Jacob Zuma became president. The rot started with cadre deployment and the policy of enforcing demographic representivity. Moreover, despite the damage all around us, despite the rising number of violent protest at poor "service delivery", cadre deployment and the enforcement of demographic representivity throughout the public sector remain key components of ANC policy.
Politics of course involves trade-offs. The ANC could hardly not have introduced measures to get many more blacks into top jobs in the public sector. But its use of crude demographics, along with the sacrifice of merit to racial entitlement, has come at a huge cost. The most publicised price has been paid by members of racial minorities denied appointment or promotion because they fall foul of racial targets. But a much greater price has been paid by the very many more people who are most dependent on public hospitals and other services for which the state is responsible.
The biggest price has been paid by the country as a whole in that we are without a properly functioning public sector, one that is upright, professional, and efficient. That is as much part of Mr Mandela's legacy as anything else.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.