Speaking at the end of last month at the launch of the 18th report of the Commission for Employment Equity, the minister of labour, Mildred Oliphant, said the public sector was now "representative in terms of race". Most South Africans, she added, agreed with the "noble objective" of achieving a "diverse workforce broadly representative" of the population.
However, even if Ms Oliphant is right in claiming that most people endorse this objective, they also know that large chunks of the public sector are in a mess. Eskom is once again implementing blackouts. Umpteen "turnaround" strategies at SAA have failed. The South African Revenue Service is a chamber of horrors, as are the state's intelligence agencies, while the Post Office is a comedy of errors. Provincial education departments, dozens of municipalities, scores of public hospitals and clinics, and a couple of hundred sewerage systems are "dysfunctional". The list goes on and on...
The African National Congress (ANC) has a kind of reverse Midas touch: whatever it touches has a good chance of turning to dross. Much of the disaster has been rightly blamed on Jacob Zuma and some of his friends. The tentacles of the Guptas extend even as far as the South African Bureau of Standards. But the slide into disaster began long before Mr Zuma became president. The crumbling of the country's infrastructure was well under way before the National Development Plan (NDP) reported on it in 2012.
When Collins Chabane took over as minister of public service and administration in 2014, he promised that the public service would be professionalised and "transformed" into "an effective service-delivery machine". Fat chance. The outcome could not have been more different. Part of the problem is the ANC's policy of cadre deployment, which has fostered a culture of entitlement, corruption, cover-up, and absence of accountability.
But "transformation" aimed at racial demographics is also to blame. It has been going on since Nelson Mandela's reign. While the Constitution requires efficient public administration, the ANC government has sacrificed that upon the altar of employment equity. According to last year's report of the Commission for Employment Equity, black Africans accounted for between 65% and 76% of top managers in national, provincial, and local government. Their share of the economically active population was 79%.
But black Africans accounted for only about 34% of people over the age of 35 and in possession of a university degree. On the assumption that top managers should be over that age and that they should also have a degree, the NDP was right to warn that the public service suffered from a deficit in skills and professionalism and that staff had often been promoted into management positions too quickly.
There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence of white professionals being eased out of the public sector. There are also many reports of posts being left empty rather than made available to whites when no suitable black applicants have been available. In some cases bonuses have been linked to racial transformation targets, encouraging managers to leave posts vacant rather than forfeit their bonuses.
The leaders of various engineering organisations dealing with the state on infrastructural projects have often spoken frankly about the damaging consequences of the aggressive pursuit of racial targeting in the public sector down the years. The experience of the engineering sector is probably reflected right across the economy, except that few people are willing to say so for fear of being branded as racists.
It would be nice to see all those responsible for corruption and criminality in the public sector in the dock, and in due course behind bars. But let us not forget that the long-term destruction of so many public institutions is the result not of criminality, but of the ANC's policies of cadre deployment and the pursuit of the ideology of demographic representivity. Unless he scraps these policies, it is difficult to see how Cyril Ramaphosa can really fix the state.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.