Only a capable, efficient, ethical state can deliver what is needed to improve the lives of South Africans. That starts with the people who work in it.
The public service must be staffed by men and women who are professional, skilled, selfless and honest. Instead, while pockets of excellence exist, we have serious challenges with regards to skills, competence and professionalism.
All too often, people have been hired and promoted to key positions for which they are neither suitable nor qualified. This affects government performance and contributes to nepotism, political interference in the work of departments, a lack of accountability, mismanagement and corruption.
There is also political and executive interference in the administration of the public service. And then, finally, there is instability in government departments when senior managers are swopped or replaced each time a new minister is appointed.
All the above statements are bloody obvious. They’re the kind of thing that the likes of the Leader of the Opposition, John Steenhuisen, bangs on about ad nauseam.
Except that every word in those first four paragraphs was penned by none other than President Cyril Ramaphosa. They’re contained in his weekly homily from The Desk of the President. That’s why these are startling sentiments, for it is the African National Congress itself that has dumped our public service into dysfunction, corruption and capriciousness.
Predictably, the Democratic Alliance has already called him out on his words. They point out that last January, in the same slot, he wrote in a similar vein: “We are committed to ending the practice of poorly qualified individuals being parachuted into positions of authority through political patronage. There should be consequences for all those in the public service who do not do their work.”
Typical Ramaphosa, his critics say. All talk and no action.
Except that this time the president has made specific promises. A draft National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service was approved by the Cabinet late last year and “structured consultation with various sectors of society is underway”.
There will be integrity tests for all short-listed individuals to ensure the recruitment of civil servants “who can serve honestly”. Applicants will sit a compulsory entrance exam, except at a senior management level.
The public service will be “depoliticised and government departments insulated from politics”. Professionalisation will be paramount and public servants will have to be capable of doing their jobs “regardless of any changes of Ministers, Members of the Executive Council or Councillors within the governing party in charge of the administration, or changes to political parties after elections”.
The tenure of heads of department will be on merit and depend on meeting performance objectives established by competency assessments. The independent Public Service Commission will be involved in the interviewing of Directors-General and Deputy Directors-General.
All good stuff. All international best-practice of the kind strived for in countries that historically have prided themselves on having a politically unaligned, efficient and ethical public service. And challenging enough that relatively few manage to pull it off.
When in 2017 the first International Civil Service Effectiveness Index (InCiSE) was launched to measure effectiveness and accountability in the central government public services, it included only 31 nations. Left in the cold were what Trump would describe as the shitholes of the world, or what the wonks at the Oxford and Institute for Government compiling the index would more politely describe as lacking reliable data.
In 2019, when InCiSE was expanded to 38 countries, a South American nation (Brazil) and an African nation (Nigeria) were included. To spare blushes, these two are not ranked in the index but reported on separately as case studies. The official rationale was that these two countries are “at different stages of economic development and with diverse political structures and traditions”.
The index rankings were predictable. Aside from South Korea and the Netherlands, the top 10 were the four Commonwealth countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK) and Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden). The northern/western European countries (wealthier, older democracies) tended to rank more highly than the southern/eastern ones (poorer and newer).
What InCiSE shows clearly is that even under the best of social and economic circumstances, good governance is not easy to achieve. The structural obstacles to Ramaphosa realising his vaulting ambitions are plain. And then there is the fact that South Africa has unique, self-inflicted burdens.
The flaws that Ramaphosa writes about have not suddenly appeared after 27 years of hitherto smooth governance. They are the predictable results of the ANC’s policies and those of its ideological white cane, the SA Communist Party — cadre deployment to “capture” every important post in government and affirmative action taken to the point of institutional self-harm.
Ironically, its predecessor, the National Party also implemented similar policies. There was affirmative action (firstly towards Afrikaners and then whites), and cadre deployment (Broederbonders before card-carrying party members).
The only difference between the Nats and the ANC is in the results. In 1994, The ANC inherited, for all its flaws, injustices and limitations, a generally efficient and mostly graft free central government bureaucracy. It was the ANC that, like a truculent toddler, trashed these structures.
Most of the state-owned enterprises established by the Nats — think Eskom, SA Airways, Armscor and the railways — operated successfully and gallingly for the ANC, are exemplars of the developmental state model that it aspires to but has failed at. Most galling must be fact, sorrowfully highlighted by several black critics, that the abhorrent “Bantu” education system — poorly funded and grudging though it was — managed to turn out kids more literate and numerate than those educated by the ANC-aligned teaching mafia, SADTU.
There is yet another ANC own-goal for Ramaphosa to overcome in his quest for good governance and efficient administration. State capture was not invented by the crooked Guptas. They merely refined the already prevalent but individualised looting by the new elite into an industrial-scale mechanism for organised crime.
It would be wonderful if Ramaphosa — who for five years as deputy-president chaired the ANC’s deployment committee — has had a Damascene moment. But it is unlikely.
The ANC is no longer a vaguely biddable political party but rather a venal patronage machine that exists mainly to convert tax revenues into Range Rovers. For this reason alone, even if Ramaphosa genuinely believed in what he is proposing, to now insist on merit and integrity in public service appointments would be political suicide.
So, don’t expect to see South Africa in the International Civil Service Effectiveness Index anytime soon. Except as maybe an also-ran “case study”.
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