Centre-stage in South Africa’s governance crisis is the question of the competence and fitness-for-purpose of its civil service – or rather, how the latter is lacking in these qualities. There is no longer any real debate about the severity of the crises that have arisen, daily illustrations of which range from brazen and pervasive corruption, to official indifference to performing its tasks, to the outright collapse of administration across large parts of the country.

No one less than President Ramaphosa declared that building a capable state and professionalising the civil service were priorities. It’s worth reflecting on this: after the better part of three decades, the president of the country concedes that a state operated by people with the ability to do so is in fact necessary. One might have thought this to have been an axiom of government, but evidently it was something that would only be heeded in the face of ruin.

If indeed it has been heeded.

The condition in which South Africa finds itself is the predictable consequence of some of the earliest missteps of its post-1994 politics. Quite simply, choices were made that deprioritised skills in favour of ideology. On the one hand, there was what might be called the ‘transformatory’ impulse. Demographic changes were demanded, even where technical and managerial skills did not exist to replace those that were leaving, let alone to staff the ‘developmental state’ to which the country’s rulers aspired.

It stands as a testimony to hubris that even official reports warned of the dangers of this course of action.

More insidious and ultimately more destructive was the ANC’s programme of cadre deployment. Geared at extending party control over society’s ‘levers of power’, it was a violation of the demands of South Africa’s constitution, which explicitly required: ‘No employee of the public service may be favoured or prejudiced only because that person supports a particular political party or cause.’

That this would have a corrosive impact on the state was entirely predictable. Brian Pottinger, former newspaper editor and author, wrote in a reflection of President Mbeki’s presidency (in words that are difficult to better):

Hardly had the edifice been crafted than it began to crack, as it inevitably would. The reasons were simple. The ANC did not have the skills base to control its own party efficiently, let alone the nation. Secondly, the deployment of inexperienced party figures into public-service offices led to a diminution of the offices themselves…

In a similar vein, Peter Franks remarked in 2014, as the rule-by-chaos of the Zuma era asserted itself: ‘Because public service placement became so politicised, incumbents too often spent their time garnering political favour and looking for their next position. Many senior managers enrolled for MBA degrees with an eye to moving into the private sector.’

As part of President Ramaphosa’s efforts at renewal, a professionalisation programme is now to be implemented. This is to be based on a draft document, A National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service. It makes for interesting reading, perhaps most importantly in emphasising that professionalism does not arise spontaneously, but must be nurtured. To hope otherwise is ‘wishful thinking’.

Yet if this is what might be called the ‘official’ position, that of the ANC takes a somewhat different tack. A discussion document prepared for its approaching Policy Conference defines one of its objectives as: ‘A capacitated, diverse civil service with  the correct skillsets to manage a CAPABLE developmental State: and to  undo the damage caused by flawed application of ANC cadre deployment  processes.’

Unfortunately, to the extent that the document discusses creating such a state and addressing the ‘flaws’ in its deployment strategy, there is very little that is either new or encouraging. Thus, the document comments:

The pool from which the ANC needs to elect the requisite collective skillsets for deployment as public representatives in government at all levels can no longer be limited to members in good standing in the ANC. It needs to be substantially broadened, so we can use the best available human resources to serve our people. To this end, a new process must be devised to elect such public representatives, at all levels of government, to achieve the optimal outcomes to enable the ANC to access the best human resources to make it a successful governing party which delivers to our people. Consideration should also be given to introducing a more objective fact-based performance management system of all ANC public representatives. So, we retain those performing well and not lose skills because of subjective processes and factional activity in the ANC.

Note that this refers to ‘public representatives’. That would normally be understood as elected office-bearers. An article on BusinessLive presented this as an approach to deployment in the state, suggesting that it would open the way for opposition-aligned people to take up positions in the civil service. Since the document offers very little about the staffing of the civil service, or how cadre deployment will be exercised in this respect, BusinessLive’s approach is reasonable.

The key takeaway is that cadre deployment continues. Any possible changes to it are intended to preserve it, and to ‘do it better’. This is a commitment with which South Africans should by now be familiar. It has been made by various government and party leaders over the better part of two decades, and even featured prominently in President Ramaphosa’s testimony before the Zondo Commission. The problem, so this narrative goes, is not the idea, but its misapplication.

This is incorrect.

Even if the ANC’s deployment committee could guarantee the selection of people of unimpeachable integrity and impeccable skills, it lacks the legal and constitutional authority to do so. There is no justification whatsoever that could be invoked for a party political structure to appoint or vet or approve appointments. None whatsoever.

Nor does the committee have incentives – nor, its record suggests, the expertise – to produce an outcome beneficial to South Africa. It has had more than two decades of experience in ‘deployment’, the result of which has been the erosion of governance capacity. This should come as no surprise: ensuring party control of society’s ‘levers of power’ was an explicit goal and one that could be achieved. Ensuring that the spoils of power and office were appropriately distributed was always going to be a related imperative. The quality of governance – in some ways a more esoteric goal to a party convinced of its ideological rectitude and confident in its power – was never likely to feature prominently.

Why there should be any prospect of a ‘successful’ strategy now, with the ANC in organisational disarray and riven by factional politics and malfeasance, is a mystery.

The solution – conceptually at least – should be simple. South Africa is beyond the point at which cadre deployment should be considered a respectable option. The very existence of a party ‘deployment’ process is the essence of the problem.

Cadre deployment must be publicly disavowed and abandoned. It has no place in a constitutional democracy and is a barrier to the ‘capable state’ to which the ANC is nominally committed. It cannot be improved. Cadre deployment must be replaced by a transparent and merit-oriented system of appointment and promotion geared towards creating a corresponding civil service and public institutions.

This will likely be a long-term process, as the problems now go deep, but to signal that competence rather than political or ideological affiliation is to be grounds for a career would be a necessary place to start.

And so, South Africa is left to wonder whether its government has in fact accepted the need for a professional civil service. The evidence remains mixed.

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Terence Corrigan

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think tank promoting individual and societal freedom. Readers are invited to support the IRR by sending...

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