The civil service under the ANC: How the rot set in

On the post-1996 reversion to a patronage based system, and the current institutional decay

Recently the ANC practice of appointing party loyalists to key positions across the state - or ‘cadre deployment' as it is called- has become a source of renewed controversy. This follows a City Press report that in a number of provinces the ANC leadership has started issuing instructions to the party in government on whom to employ in senior state positions.

The Democratic Alliance leader, Helen Zille, has called for the Public Service Commission to intervene (see here), while the ANC has defended itself saying that it "is an internationally accepted norm for any ruling party to deploy its cadres into Government as president, premiers, ministers, MECs and into any other strategic position. South Africa is no exception" (see here.)

The following article - from 2006 - explains how South Africa diverged from the Western civil service model post 1994, and how this has led to much of the institutional decay we are now witnessing at all levels of government.

The ANC and the public service

James Myburgh

According to the standards by which the West usually judges other countries, South Africa is doing well [2006]. The governing party's popular support is greater than ever, and the economy is growing strongly. Yet, if one applies the standards which Westerners measure the state of their own societies, then this bright picture dims considerably.

In particular, the dangerous consequences of the ANC's deliberate conflation of party and state are becoming more and more self-evident. They have been manifested recently in the illicit (and so far unpunished) diversion of state monies to fund the ANC's 2004 election campaign; the incapacity of the state to deliver services, particularly at local government level; and, the involvement of the security services in the ANC's own internal battles. What seems particularly lacking in South Africa, at the moment, is the ideal "that the discharge of public duties is an ennobling activity that demands exacting subjection to the law and selfless service to the public interest".[1]

Although the symptoms are now generally recognised and condemned (sometimes by the ANC itself) the disease itself is less well understood. Indeed, the ANC's efforts to bring the state under party control were initially welcomed by much right-thinking opinion. The movement's apologists explained that South Africa was going in "same direction as many of the world's other democracies" or was simply following the "US example". The United States experience is an instructive one, not simply because it was misunderstood by such commentators, but because it goes some way to explaining South Africa's current predicament.

The US civil service system has its origin, as does the British, in the 1854 report by Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan on the organisation of the British civil service. In Britain up until the 1850s entry into the civil service was based upon patronage-politicians had the right to give away such jobs. An earlier effort to limit political interference meant that promotions within the civil service were done through seniority, and officers kept their places during good behaviour.

The authors complained that under this system "while no pains have been taken in the first instance to secure a good man for the office, nothing has been done after the clerk's appointment to turn his abilities, whatever they may be, to the best account". As a result the public service attracted "the unambitious, and the indolent or incapable".

They proposed instead that entry should be based upon open competitive examinations and that promotion should be based upon merit in order to encourage the more able to compete for higher posts. These reforms were implemented incrementally. In 1855 the Civil Service Commission was established to vet entrants into the civil service; to ensure that they were of suitable character, and that they had the requisite knowledge to carry out their duties.

Nominations remained in the gift of the politicians until 1870 when open competitive examinations were introduced in a most departments. The merit-system was progressively extended and by the early twentieth century patronage had almost completely been weeded out of the system. As E.W. Cohen noted, "Whatever the nature of the Civil Service appointment...It had been recognized that posts should be awarded on merit, and that merit should be objectively assessed, [and] that the role of personal prejudice and political influence should be eliminated."[2]

In the US the federal service was wholly based, up until the 1880s, on a ‘spoils' system-the term having its origin in the adage that "to the victor belong the spoils." Politicians dictated appointments. A civil servant could be removed if their party lost power, their patron lost influence, or if they ceased their political activities. Tenure was insecure, morale was low, and civil servants had backgrounds irrelevant to the tasks they were required to carry out. The loyalty of the civil servant was primarily to his patron-the local politician who had procured him his job.

In 1883 Congress passed the Pendleton Act. The Act required that a limited portion of the civil service, referred to as the classified service, be selected by competitive examination. A Civil Service Commission was established initially to screen applicants to the classified service, and it later acquired control over promotions, demotions and removals. The number of government workers affected by the Pendleton Act grew rapidly. In 1883 only 11 percent of the federal civil service was classified; by 1900, this had increased to 46 percent; by 1930 to 75 percent; and, at present, all but a few thousand policy-level appointments fall within the classified service.

The expansion of the merit system and the growth of the power of the Commission had a profound effect upon government service: It became a career, a far better quality of applicant was attracted, and national feeling was promoted. "A civil servant's allegiance to patron and party slackened" the historian Ari Hoogenboom wrote, "when local politicians lost most of their power over the classified service. Under the merit system, politicians who had once dictated appointments and removals could not even secure positions for relatives."

Accompanying the politician's declining influence was the growth of morale and espirit de corps. The classified service was also far more efficient. Theodore Roosevelt, who for a while headed the Civil Service Commission, noted in 1895 that "every Cabinet officer whom I have seen in Washington has, before the end of his term, come to the conclusion that if there was any bureau in which he needed special efficiency, he had to put it under the civil service law."

In the unclassified service Hoogenboom wrote "spoils methods continued to prevail; political orthodoxy was required, political activity was expected, tenure was insecure, and the civil servant's loyalty to a party chieftain rather than to the commonweal."[3]

In both Britain and the US the reform movement had had to overcome both the vested interests of the political class as well as the idea that patronage based appointments were intrinsically ‘democratic'. It was only the gross misconduct of the Crimean War in the case of Britain, and the murder of President Garfield by a disappointed office seeker in the US, that created a sufficient groundswell of support for these reforms. Even so it took a long time for a merit to prevail over patronage. Trevelyan warned however that the abuses of patronage were deeply rooted in human nature and "if the existing checks upon them were at all relaxed they would shoot out and flourish as much as ever".

The 1993 constitutional principles to which the final South African constitution was supposed to conform stated that the there should be an "efficient, non-partisan, career-orientated public service broadly representative of the South African community." To give effect to these principles the interim constitution and Public Service Act, signed into law by Nelson Mandela in June 1994, vested control over the appointment, promotion, and disciplining of public servants in the hands of an independent Public Service Commission.

The employment policy of the public service was initially based upon the principles of merit and efficiency. This meant that only "the qualifications, level of training, merit, efficiency and suitability of a person" would be taken into account for the filling of posts. According to the ANC's own assessments, of the time, the civil service it inherited was co-operative, willing to serve the new government, with the majority "resolved to continue in their positions".

Ideologically, the ANC remained committed to an African nationalist doctrine, namely that ‘democracy' required the "control of the State by a party which effectively expresses the popular will".[4] It had (reluctantly) agreed to these constraints in order to facilitate the transition, and very soon after coming to power resolved to remove them.

In early 1996 the ANC announced, in its January 8th statement, that the state would "be structured and motivated to fulfil the democratically expressed will of the people." Shortly afterwards government announced that the Public Service Commission was to be stripped of its powers, and reduced to performing a supervisory role. The existing incumbents of the state were encouraged to leave by the curtailment of their career prospects and then allowed to do so through the introduction of early retirement and voluntary severance package schemes.

Between May 1996 and September 1997 22 249 (mostly white) civil servants took packages at national level, and a further 25 805 at provincial level. In June 1997 the ANC government introduced legislation to amend the Public Service Act to formally allow it to appoint the people that it wanted in key positions. It did this by formally transferring control over personnel matters from the Public Service Commission to the political bosses of each department; by watering down the requirements for objective qualifications for specific jobs; and, by getting "rid of merit as the overriding principle in the appointment of public servants" as one ANC MP memorably put it.

As the upper echelons of the state were cleared of their incumbents, the ANC was now free to replace them with political appointees. At the Mafikeng conference in December 1997 the ANC leadership was vested with ultimate control over appointments to the state and elsewhere, not already in the gift of the president. It also received a mandate to deploy ‘cadres' to various organs of the state, including the public service, in order to ensure that "the ANC plays a leading role in all centres of power." The ANC defines a ‘cadre' as a member of the movement "involved in the formulation and practical implementation of policy, and willing to carry out all tasks assigned".

The ANC subsequently established deployment committees at national and provincial level to oversee this process. The stated intention was to put in place a nomenklatura system with the committees drawing up lists of available positions, and those thought fit to fill them, but it is not known whether they ever went this far.

In July 2000 the ANC noted that it had "achieved considerable progress in the deployment of political and administrative heads". The need now was "to put greater emphasis on restructuring middle management in strategic areas in the public service". It was subsequently reported that ANC structures were vetting even mid-level appointments to the public service. After the December 2000 local government elections the deployment committees in each province had the final say over the appointments of municipal managers in all ANC-controlled municipalities.

Any residual doubt about whether such political appointees were supposed to play loyalty to the party over all other loyalties were dispelled by various amendments to the party's constitution in December 2002. These stated that "All [ANC] members, without exception" were subject to party discipline and were required to abide by (inter alia) "all policies and decisions properly adopted or made" by the party.

It is hardly surprising that many senior officials in the state advance the interests of the ANC, or a faction within the ANC, when they have been selected for their political orthodoxy and their tenure in office depends primarily on loyalty to party or patron. The problem however goes much deeper than this. Writing of the American experience Leonard White noted that when politicians took over the role of personnel manager, career civil servants were placed in an invidious position:

"They see their rights to promotion ignored; they observe political favourites rise high in the official world while they continue the same humble tasks; they draw the hard and unpleasant assignments; not infrequently they are obliged to carry a considerable portion of the work of the political employee whose interests roam in other fields; they carry on with the constant dread of losing their positions, and not infrequently forestall what they fear to be inevitable by seeking employment elsewhere... Or, noting that the good things are secured by favour, they follow the way marked out by the politician and thus inaugurate a disgraceful competition in currying favour and seeking attention...All this is reflected in the rate of labour turnover, which brings about a progressive loss in efficiency owing to the elimination of the more competent, the progressive demoralization of the office, and the constant strengthening of the very forces which commenced the decline.[5]"

Under the current system then it is extremely difficult for even the most committed civil servant (of whom there are undoubtedly many) to serve the public interest, and uphold the law, when doing so brings them into conflict with their ministers or the interests of the ruling party. Since their careers are in the hands of their political bosses, they are extremely vulnerable to victimisation. The remedies provided by the labour law might eventually bring some recompense, but by the time it does so the damage has been done.

This article was first published in Focus, the journal of the Helen Suzman Foundation Issue 43, Third Quarter 2006

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[1] Guillermo O'Donnell, "Horizontal Accountability in New Democracies", Journal of Democracy, vol. 9, no. 3, 1998
[2] E.W. Cohen, The Growth of the British Civil Service 1780-1939, (London: Frank Cass, 1965)
[3] Ari Hoogenboom, "The Pendleton Act and the Civil Service", The American Historical Review, vol. 64, no. 2, January 1958
[4] Thomas Hodgkin, African Political Parties: An Introductory Guide, (London: Penguin Books, 1961)
[5] Leonard D. White, "The Politician as Personnel Manager: The Cost to the Taxpayer", Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 113, May 1924, p. 308