The IRR, AA and the origins of state decay

James Myburgh examines the ANC policies that have led to the dysfunctionality of so many state institutions


Over the past few weeks the Institute of Race Relations has come under fire for a press statement titled, somewhat provocatively, "Affirmative Action is killing babies and must be scrapped." The Institute argued that the recent unnecessary deaths of a number of babies - from contaminated drinking water in Bloemhof and poor care in Gauteng and Limpopo health facilities - were the direct result of governmental incompetence and this, in turn, was the product of government's policies of race-based affirmative action.

The Institute stated that, in the case of Bloemhof where the sewerage treatment plant had not been properly maintained, "There is no doubt that the officials responsible for these deaths were appointed, at least in part, on grounds of race-based affirmative action and that a direct causal link therefore exists between the policy and the deaths."

It then questioned why, even when the horrific consequences of state dysfunctionality manifest themselves, there is a taboo in the press against discussing the race policies underlying government incompetence.

The Institute's challenge has attracted a response in the media ranging from the indignant to the outraged. Mail & Guardian columnist Nikiwe Bikitsha wrote that when she read the Institute's statement "red-hot flames" shot out of her ears. In the Daily Maverick Stephen Grootes appeared to deny that government's racial employment policies had had any negative effect, whatsoever, on state capacity.

He concluded by stating: "Affirmative action is a force for good in our society. It must stay. And it doesn't kill babies." Meanwhile City Press editor, Ferial Haffajee, wrote that "There is no link, except an ideological one and a possibly racist one, between the Bloemhof babies who died and affirmative action." She then accused the Institute of suggesting that the "black incumbents are institutionally and indelibly inferior. 

I presume that it is common cause, among all these journalists, that much of the state is highly dysfunctional. Indeed, much press reporting in South Africa is concerned with documenting the effects of institutional state decay - whether this is the breakdown in clean water supply, power outages, corruption, misallocated tenders, turmoil in the NPA, poor quality schooling, low standards of care and sometimes deadly equipment failures in state hospitals, and so on and on and on. Government's own National Development Plan acknowledges the extent of the problem.

In her critique of the Institute Haffajee herself writes:

"If you trace the story and its narrative arc, you'll find that there is a deadly cocktail being served. Its ingredients include cadre deployment (where politicians who do not make it onto party lists become municipal managers and officials); neglect and corruption (there are numerous municipalities where water tanker owners work in cahoots with municipal officials to prevent the laying of drinking water and sewage pipes). If you ask the mums of the babies, they lay responsibility at the doors of hospital managers where queues kept the ill from being treated and at the municipality."

The question is whether there is any causal link between the government's racial employment policies, in the past, and such institutional decay in the present. One can, upfront, exclude low pay as a possible alternative contributing factor. As the NDP report noted state employees earn more than their private sector counterparts and sometimes as much, adjusting for purchasing power parity, as civil servants in developed countries.

It is important too, to define what is meant by "Affirmative Action", as the term can encompass anything from soft "thumb on the scale" class-based preferences to hard Nazi-style race quotas. Thus, Stephen Grootes describes the policy, wholly wrongly in the current context, as meaning that when two equally qualified candidates apply for a job the individual from the more disadvantaged background should receive preference.

Bikitsha defines it, much more accurately, as the requirement that blacks and women "must be given preference over white male candidates" and that "black people and women should be promoted so that the senior levels of their relevant organisations reflect the demographic make-up of our country."

The causes and consequences of state decay are issues Politicsweb has dealt with, at length, in the past. This article will retrace a number of those themes.

The British civil service before the merit-system

Before dealing with the ANC's application of so-called "Affirmative Action" to the state over the past twenty years, however, it is necessary to understand the basic principles that underlie effective state institutions (as these are very much the exception rather than the rule in human history.)

In Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century, for instance, positions in the civil service were either made through Letters Patent (essentially appointments by the Crown), patronage (appointments by political heads of department), or they were purchased. Often place holders did not do the work in person, but hired deputies to perform those functions on their behalf. In a large number of cases those employed did not do any work at all, and just held the positions as sinecures.

At the risk of impugning the racial dignity of those of Anglo-Saxon descent, it is important to note that the British state at that time was both deeply inefficient and horribly corrupt. For instance, according to EW Cohen in The Growth of the British Civil Service 1780-1939, from which much of the following account is derived, Captain Horatio Nelson wrote repeatedly to the responsible departments in London "complaining of the frauds perpetrated by those who contracted to victual the Navy in the West Indies."

In a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury, sent from the Island of Nevis in the Caribbean, on May 4 1787, Nelson wrote that he had examined a number of books and papers "from which it appears that the government has been defrauded in a most scandalous and infamous manner. The only emulation I can perceive is, Who could cheat the most." At the end of the 18th century, according to Cohen, "no regulations prevented those employed in public departments from being financially interested in Government contracts."

By the middle of the 19th century some of the worst abuses, and corruption, had been checked. Appointments were permanent, providing the incumbent did not indulge in gross misconduct, and advancement through the civil service depended upon seniority. Civil Service appointments however were allocated through political patronage. In these appointments, according to Cohen, "party considerations outweighed all others. There were no tests of the qualifications of nominees. The only existing safeguard was the power to dismiss those who proved themselves totally incapable during their period of probation."

In 1836 a Treasury minute ineffectively suggested, Cohen writes, that inquiries "should be made to ensure that those appointed had not been convicted for offences against the revenue laws, and that it was desirable that nominees should know how to read, write, and do simple arithmetic. No systematic test was suggested, and unsatisfactory nominations continued to be made." Politicians meanwhile responded indignantly when maverick officials tried to make appointments to their departments on the basis of merit alone.

The reforms that transformed the British Civil Service were proposed by Sir Charles Trevelyan and Sir Stafford Northcote in their 1854 report on "The Reorganisation of the Permanent Civil Service." Trevelyan and Northcote wrote of the existing status quo:

"It would be natural to expect that so important a profession [the permanent Civil Service] would attract into its ranks the ablest and the most ambitious, of the youth of the country; that the keenest emulation would prevail among those who had entered it; and that such as were endowed with superior qualifications would rapidly rise to distinction and public eminence. Such, however, is by no means the case. Admission into the Civil Service is indeed eagerly sought after, but it is for the unambitious, and the indolent or incapable, that it is chiefly desired."

Once an individual was appointed to the service, promotion then depended on seniority alone, "without any regard to his previous services or his qualifications." All-in-all this meant that "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."

Northcote and Trevelyan proposed then that entry into the civil service should be based upon competitive examinations, administered by an independent and well respected body. The right of competing, meanwhile, should be "open to all persons of a given age", provided they were of sound body and good moral character. And merit should be the sole criterion for the advancement of civil servants through the ranks thereafter. They wrote:

"The general principle, then, which we advocate is, that the public service should be carried on by the admission into its lower ranks of a carefully selected body of young men, who should be employed from the first upon work suited to their capacities and their education, and should be made constantly to feel that their promotion. and future prospects depend entirely on the industry and ability with which they discharge their duties, that with average abilities and reasonable application they may look forward confidently to a certain provision for their lives, that with superior powers they may rationally hope to attain to the highest prizes in the Service, while if they prove decidedly incompetent, or incurably indolent, they must expect to be removed from it."

These proposals met with a generally hostile reception given the general inertia of society and the specific threat they posed to existing vested interests. As Cohen writes: "Politicians, Civil Servants, and the general public received the Northcote-Trevelyan Report with such coldness that it seemed unlikely that any action would be taken." Indeed, it seemed probable that the report's recommendation would simply die a quiet death. However, the Crimean War broke out shortly afterwards and this rudely shook the public into "a realisation of the importance of the country's administrative organisation."

Cohen writes that the uncensored dispatches of W. H. Russell for The Times of London "contained vivid descriptions of the confusion, mismanagement, and maladministration which he saw at the scene of the action. The public read of the conditions of the military hospitals, of the inadequacies of the supplies, of the high death-rate amongst the soldiers." Public outrage at the mismanagement of the war led to the resignation of Lord Aberdeen as Prime Minister and the founding, on May 5 1855, of the Administrative Reform Association which sought to campaign "to put an end to those influences which at present burden every department of Government with incapable offices" through the implementation of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms.

Lord Palmerston, the new British Prime Minister, was not particularly interested in adopting these measures. However, in an effort to assuage public opinion he established, by Order in Council, the Civil Service Commission on May 21 1855. The Commission was given limited powers. Nominations remained in the hands of politicians. But the Commission was mandated to vet the candidates, through examinations, and ensure they were inter alia of good character and possessed the "requisite knowledge and ability for the proper discharge" of their official duties.

In their first report in 1856 the commissioners stated, according to Cohen, that they had had to reject 309 out of 1 078 nominees on the "grounds of gross ignorance." Many candidates were unable to spell even simple single syllable words such as 'shield' or ‘each'. The commission noted:

"The numerous cases in which we have been obliged to refuse certificates on account of bad spelling might, unless otherwise accounted for, lead to an unfavourable conclusion as to the state of education of the middle classes in this country, from which classes a large number of the inferior offices of the Government departments are taken. We believe, however, that there exists no want of sufficiently well-educated persons to supply the vacancies in these offices; and that the frequent occurrence in candidates of deficiency in the simplest elements of knowledge arises from the fact that many of the inferior appointments are made, without personal knowledge of the fitness of the party, on the recommendation of some other person, who is desirous, not of supplying the public with a useful officer, but of making competent provision for a friend."

The reports of the commission, the data collected, and the deficiencies noted by the commissioners in the existing form of (political) nomination, were important in building the case for the full implementation of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms. However, it was only in 1870 that the government of Prime Minister William Gladstone, long a proponent of Civil Service reform, issued an Order in Council directing that in future "all vacancies in a given list of offices should be filled by open competitive examination" (the Foreign Office and Home Office were excluded, as their ministers were opposed to this measure.)

These reforms meant, Cohen writes, that "patronage no longer figured as an important feature of party politics, and Members of Parliament could not look forward to securing the goodwill of their supporters by a judicious distribution of places." They also gave added impetus to educational improvement in Britain, with advancement into the civil service now dependent on educational attainment rather than, as in the past, through courting favour.

By the early Twentieth Century, Cohen noted, it had "been recognised that posts should be awarded on merit, and that merit should be objectively assessed, that the role of personal prejudice and political influence in recommending candidates should be eliminated as far as the Home Service was concerned. These principles, which had been established in the nineteenth century, were maintained and extended during the twentieth century."

Today these principles are so taken for granted that their original rationale, the difficulties that were had in getting them first adopted, and the evils that they were intended to stamp out, are almost completely forgotten. They are, in other words, a forgotten solution to a problem that many in the West no longer remember even existed in their own societies.

The South African state post-1994

This model of the non-partisan, merit-based civil service was initially supposed to be the one implemented into the new South Africa. The 1994 interim constitution placed the appointment and promotion of civil servants in the hands of independent civil service commission. The Commission, in turn, was required to "promote an efficient public administration broadly representative of the South African community". The inclusion of this latter requirement, though unwise in hindsight, was understandable at the time given the need to de-segregate the South African state.

The Constitutional Principles, to which the final Constitution was meant to conform, required that "There shall be an efficient, non-partisan, career-orientated public service broadly representative of the South African community" and that the "independence and impartiality" of the Public Service Commission be safeguarded.

Section 11 of the June 1994 Public Service Act, signed into law by President Nelson Mandela, stated that "In the making of any appointment or the filling of any post in the public service... only the qualifications, level of training, merit, efficiency and suitability of the persons who qualify for the appointment, promotion or transfer in question... shall be taken into account."

Contrary to much contemporary mythology ANC ministers entering into office after 1994 had, on the whole, found the existing civil service to be co-operative. Ironically, as soon as the ANC realised this - and that the once acute threat of counter-revolution had passed - the party resolved to reassert its historic goals of capturing state power and Africanising the civil service.

Thus, at the end of 1994 the party had resolved to clip the wings of the Public Service Commission and implement "a systematic programme with time-frames" to ensure "through affirmative action, that the civil service reflects the make-up of South African society, particularly by accelerating the employment of Africans, Coloureds, Indians, women and others previously excluded".

During the negotiations around the final constitution the ANC viewed an independent Public Service Commission as the major obstacle to its plans for major "surgery" of the state. This despite the fact that the Commission had made fairly rapid progress in achieving the goal of ‘broad representivity' while seeking, at the same time, to ensure that this was not at the expense of organisational efficiency.

In early 1996 the ANC proceeded to set about systematically dismantling the ‘merit-system' in civil service appointments. It signalled its intentions in its January 8th statement, that year, wherein it reiterated the African nationalist principle that the state machinery had to be "be structured and motivated to fulfil the democratically expressed will of the people".

A few days later it was announced that the Public Service Commission was to be deprived of its powers over promotions and appointments in the civil service and would lose most of its staff. The final constitution, waved through by the Constitutional Court under Arthur Chaskalson later that year, stripped the commission of the powers over the career incidents of public servants that it had wielded in terms of the interim one.

In June 1997 the ANC introduced amendments to the Public Service Act to abolish merit as the over-riding principle in the appointment of public services, and formally transfer the powers over the career-incidents of public servants to the political heads of each department. (The President went on to acquire the power to appoint Directors General.) Section 11 of the revised Public Service Act now made no reference to merit, stating nebulously instead: "the evaluation of persons shall be based on training, skills, competence, knowledge and the need to redress the imbalances of the past to achieve a public service broadly representative of the South African people, including representation according to race, gender and disability." The Public Service Commission's strict requirements for appropriate skills and qualifications for civil service positions, were also discarded.

The White Paper on Affirmative Action in the Public Service, introduced in draft form in 1997 and adopted the following year, stated that the ANC government would seek to achieve "a Public Service that... represents the make-up of the population within all occupational classes and at all post levels of the Public Service". Broad representivity was now redefined as demographic representivity. The ANC, in other words, would seek to progressively restrict white South Africans in the state, at all levels, to their precise proportion of the total population (13% at the time).

The message very clearly communicated to white incumbents was that however able and committed to their profession they were, they could expect no further advancement under the ANC. Largely as a result tens of thousands of SA's most technically skilled and experienced civil servants, detectives, prosecutors, teachers and so on, proceeded to take the severance packages offered to them by the government. The ANC leadership was warned repeatedly at the devastating effects this loss of expertise was having on state capacity, but such concerns were dismissed by Deputy President Thabo Mbeki as racist.

By this stage the ANC had, in the name of ‘Affirmative Action', abolished the two crucial checks on political patronage in the public service. Namely, the requirement that an independent commission should oversee appointments (not politicians), and the principle that merit, objectively assessed, should be the main criterion for appointment and promotion.

Almost concurrently the ANC adopted a policy of cadre deployment through which the party sought to bring all levers of power - "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" - under the control of the National Liberation Movement.

These dual policies of racial exclusion and cadre deployment were extended to municipalities, under ANC control, after the 2000 local government elections (if they had not already been implemented beforehand.)

One argument that has been made recently is that it is cadre deployment, not the ANC's race policies, that is to blame for the dysfunctionality of so many state institutions today. In reality though the two are not really separable.

The ANC viewed itself as the embodiment of the will of the black majority, and through cadre deployment sought to extend ‘African hegemony' across state and parastatal institutions. The primary task of these ANC cadres was to ensure the vigorous implementation of strict ‘demographic representivity'.

The early cadre deployments, such as Jackie Selebi's appointment to head up the police, were widely welcomed by the press and civil society as symbolically and substantively placing power in the hands of the black majority. In an editorial Business Day (October 13 1998) described ANC demands for all levers of power to be brought under party control as probably just "code for accelerated affirmative action in strategically important state posts."

It is true that a more moderate and restrained version of ‘affirmative action' would have had less harmful effects. The Treasury and South African Revenue Services today are examples of what could have been achieved had the government sought to rationally balance the goal of broad representivity against the need to maintain critical institutional capacity.

However, South Africa today is dealing with the consequences of the actual policy of the ANC, which generally elevated the pursuit of demographic representivity (or an absolute equality of outcomes) over all other considerations, not some hypothetical version of "AA".

The consequences

As noted before the consequences of the ANC's racial policies can be measured through the primary, secondary and tertiary effects. The primary effect is obviously that the state has, from the late 1990s onwards, suffered from an increasingly acute and largely self-inflicted skills shortage - with those with critically needed technical expertise being pushed out or excluded from state employment for racial or political reasons.

The secondary effect has been to demotivate ordinary state functionaries as promotion is no longer dependent on individual ability and application, but rather on ascriptive characteristics, cronyism or political favour-seeking.

The tertiary effect has been to create a deeply corrupt ethic in our society whereby advancement is seen as being secured not through education, individual application and hard work but through demands for racial preferment, or political connectedness.

The dismantling of the basic principles of the merit-system in civil service appointments has resulted in a sprouting up of all the evils that this system was originally designed to do away with. Positions in the police and schools are now being sold. Tenders are seldom honestly awarded. Civil servants routinely do business with the state. Civil service positions are sought out by the "unambitious, and the indolent or incapable" not by the best and brightest. Politicians are able to entrench their support, and pay off key constituencies, by handing out positions. The quality of the services provided by state institutions, particularly at local and provincial level, are increasingly dire.

As the reaction to the IRR's original statement indicates much of the press and civil society seems to be trapped in an intellectual and moral no-man's land. Though the press may bewail the corruption and state dysfunction in front of its eyes there appears to be a widespread refusal to face up to the underlying causes of the problem, or support the reforms needed to deal with it.

These include the rooting out of political patronage in state, parastatal and judicial appointments; the introduction of open and competitive examinations for entry into state employment; the restoration of the independence and powers of the Public Service Commission; and the lifting of all racial barriers to entry into, or advancement within, the state.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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