A silver bullet to save us from state failure

Leon Schreiber calls on President Ramaphosa to support DA bill restoring the powers of the PSC

The DA’s plan to end cadre deployment

It has been gratifying to see that the new year started with some desperately-needed media spotlight being shone upon the collapse of our public service. The discussion was triggered by the following sentence in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s January newsletter: “We are committed to end the practice of poorly qualified individuals being parachuted into positions of authority through political patronage.”

I spent most of my first year in Parliament working to understand and expose the true scale of the collapse that threatens to turn South Africa into a failed state. From a shocking lack of capacity across the board, to spending far more on public wages than both our developing country peers and the rich countries of the OECD, to the arrogant lack of accountability that saw the government implement less than 10% of the recommendations issued by the Public Service Commission, as well as ongoing attempts to hoodwink the public on the new ministerial handbook – 2019 laid bare that the current system is simply beyond saving.

It is no longer of any use to just tinker around the edges. We need courageous reforms that fundamentally and radically change how the public service functions.

This is precisely what worries me about Ramaphosa’s sentiments in his newsletter. While some media outlets twisted his words by proclaiming that the President wants to “end cadre deployment,” Ramaphosa never actually mentioned cadre deployment in his newsletter. Instead, he merely expressed his dissatisfaction at the “deployment” of “poorly qualified individuals” into the state.

But a lack of qualifications is not the underlying problem. South Africa’s public service has not collapsed only because many senior public servants are totally unqualified for their posts. It has collapsed because every single senior public servant is appointed by a politician. At the heart of cadre deployment is the belief that politicians should have the power to appoint professional public servants. This means that, even if a public servant possesses the proper qualifications, they will still put politics over delivery because they know that their careers depend on pleasing politicians.

I suspect that most South Africans would rightly not even trust a politician to appoint their local hairdresser. Yet we apparently trust politicians to appoint the people who manage our children’s education, oversee our healthcare and operate our power stations. We will never be able to build a capable state that serves the citizens of South Africa until we strip politicians of the power to appoint professional public servants.

To clarify a common misconception: all politicians around the world are allowed to appoint a small group of advisers and aids who work in their personal offices. The problem in South Africa is that section 9 of the Public Service Act of 1994 [as amended in 1997 - PW] says that “the appointment of any person or the promotion or transfer of any officer or employee in the employ of a national department or provincial administration shall be made by the relevant executing authority.”

With this sentence, the law gives politicians complete control over the careers of every single professional public servant in the country. Unlike in the rest of the world, their powers of appointment are not limited to a small handful of overtly political positions in their private offices. Instead, politicians in South African control the fates of every Director-General, every Deputy Director-General, every Chief Director, every Director, every Deputy Director, every Assistant Director, and every other public employee throughout the entire country.

The good news is that the Democratic Alliance has opened the door for President Ramaphosa to put his money where his mouth is. Once Parliament reopens, I will be introducing a private members bill to completely strip politicians of the power to appoint professional public servants. As is standard practice around the world, our legislation will instead hand those vast powers to a reformed Public Service Commission that will operate independently of politics. All it will take to make this a reality is for President Ramaphosa to lead his party in supporting our legislation.

Beyond all the cosmetic proposals and empty talk, this is how we will actually be able to build a capable, professional state that serves the people rather than politicians. This is how we eradicate state capture and corruption once for all. This is how we ensure that the state plays its appropriate role in creating the conditions for an economic recovery.

Make no mistake: adopting the DA’s Professional Public Service Bill will unleash a revolution in South Africa. In one fell swoop, it will completely change the incentive structure facing public servants by making performance the only metric for career advancement. Merit will replace mediocrity. Competence will supersede connections. Performance will eliminate patronage.

We have a date then in Parliament, Mr President. Here is your opportunity to show that you practice what you preach, and that you have the courage to take bold action to truly fix our country.

*Dr Leon Schreiber is the DA’s Shadow Minister for Public Service and Administration.

This article first appeared on News24