Cyril's sleight of hand

Leon Schreiber says the President has cut back a bit on cabinet, but what of the depts?

The biggest political story of the past week was President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet announcement. Aside from scrutinizing the corruption records of the particular individuals that Ramaphosa appointed to the cabinet, most subsequent analyses focused on the size of the cabinet to see if the president would trim the number of ministers and deputy ministers, whose lavish lifestyles are funded by taxpayers.

In the end, media commentators and even Ramaphosa supporters had to admit that the outcome was decidedly underwhelming. While the president modestly reduced the number of ministers from 36 to 28, he appointed two deputies to multiple ministries, leaving the number of deputy ministers virtually unchanged at 34. While down from 72, South Africa today still has 64 members in its executive (including the president and deputy president) – which means we still have one of the most bloated executives in the entire world. Claiming this as a victory is like bragging about how much your fiddling has improved while Rome burns.

Of course, the frantic discussion about the size of the cabinet reflects how tired South Africans are of living under a government that uses their hard-earned money to fund ANC politicians’ corrupt enterprises and luxurious lifestyles. For many, the size of Ramaphosa’s cabinet has come to be seen as a proxy for his willingness to tackle the wasteful excesses of the ANC elite. Even under that logic, the underwhelming reduction in the size of the executive can be read as an indication that the president remains far too concerned with appeasing the ANC’s patronage networks to create the lean and fit-for-purpose 15-member cabinet that the DA has long argued for.

But the near-exclusive focus on the size of the cabinet obscures a more important point. Throughout the election campaign, the president cleverly committed himself to cutting his cabinet – while speaking little about reforming the public sector as a whole. By limiting the discussion about rightsizing to the cabinet rather than to the entire public service – and as underwhelming as last week’s announcement was – Ramaphosa can now claim that he technically complied with his promise to reduce the size of the cabinet.

However, it’s ultimately not merely the number of ministers that matters. What matters far more is the number and scope of government departments contained within each ministry. On this front, Ramaphosa’s announcement yielded no change at all. Even while he marginally reduced the number of ministers, the president introduced no new steps to rightsize and reform government departments. Instead, he simply lumped different departments together under one minister and then pretended that this represented significant change.

As a result, South Africa today has eight fewer ministers and two fewer deputy ministers – but exactly the same number of government departments. Pretending that merely reducing the size of cabinet without restructuring departments amounts to meaningful reform was an effective slight-of-hand that allowed Ramaphosa to claim an easy victory. But look below the surface, and you’ll see that it was an empty gesture.

Reducing the cabinet by eight members will trim the public sector wage bill by less than R20 million per year. This amounts to a drop in the ocean compared to the full-blown public sector crisis staring us in the face. South Africa’s national debt-to-GDP ratio more than doubled during the last decade to 56% – meaning that it would take 56% of the value of everything our country produces in an entire year to pay off the debt this government has racked up.

Salary hikes for politicians and public servants is one big reason why our public debt has taken on crisis proportions. Currently, R3.52 of every R10 spent by the government goes to wages. When measured as a share of revenues collected, the figure increases to R4.60 per R10. Even worse is that the bulk of this is paid to ANC cadres who are “deployed” into countless management positions while our doctors, nurses and teachers are underpaid.

Driven in large part by public sector wage hikes, in 2019, the country will spend R243 billion more than we take in through taxes – which means that South Africa is borrowing R1.2 billion per working day. In that context, the supposed savings on Ramaphosa’s cabinet are utterly meaningless unless they are accompanied by a total overhaul of the country’s public sector.

The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the government makes almost no effort to measure the productivity of the public service. Although South Africa spends far more on wages that most of our peers and despite double-digit annual salary increases over the past decade, the government has no idea if it has anything to show in return for this spending spree. In its current form, South Africa’s public service is wholly unsustainable.

The configuration, efficiency, and performance of the public sector has real-world consequences that directly impacts citizens on a daily basis. When the Gauteng health department caused the deaths of at least 144 patients – and when they recently chained a 76-year old patient to a bench – they did so because of the utter collapse of public sector management and systems. When school children do not receive the textbooks they need to learn, it reflects the failure of the public service. Every time that Home Affairs claims that its “systems are down” – causing South Africa’s economy to lose millions of Rands in productivity – it is because of the failure of the public service.

But we also have a counter-example from the Western Cape, where unlike the rest of the country, the DA has built a capable state over the past decade. Aside from achieving the cleanest and best service delivery record of any government in South Africa, recent data released by Stats SA shows that 77.4% of households in the Western Cape have at least one person earning a salary – far higher than the nationwide average of 64.8%. The Western Cape’s honest and capable state is the foundation that puts more money into the pockets of the province’s people.

The bottom-line is that a capable state creates the environment for economic prosperity, while a rotten public service takes money out of taxpayers’ pockets and puts it into the bloated bank accounts of ANC cronies without offering anything in return by way of efficient service delivery.

South Africa needs much more than a superficial reduction in the number of ministerial posts. What our country needs is a total overhaul of the public service that roots out cadre deployment, cuts wage costs in favour of capital expenditure, reduces the number of management posts while increasing the number of skilled technical employees, introduces merit-based appointments and clear measures of productivity, and strengthens the hand of the Public Service Commission to enforce compliance and accountability for non-performance.

As part of his cabinet announcement, Ramaphosa introduced Senzo Mchunu as the new minister of public service and administration. It is time for the president and the new minister to move beyond empty platitudes and superficial gestures, and get down to the real work of fundamentally reforming the public service to build a capable state in South Africa. Only a capable state can cultivate the ecosystem necessary to drive job creation and put more money in the pockets of citizens rather than politicians and their cronies. Our country has no time to lose.

*Dr Leon Schreiber is a DA Member of Parliament.