Last week, I made a presentation to the Parliamentary Committee on Public Service and Administration. The subject was a Private Member’s Bill, submitted by Dr Leon Schreiber, which sought to end political interference in appointments to and management of the public service. The Bill would have sought specifically to criminalise such political interference; in its technical interventions, it would enhance the independence and autonomy of the Public Service Commission
I found this proposal an attractive one and was invited to speak in support of the Bill.
In effect, this was meant to combat cadre deployment; I eschewed using this term as I thought that the content of the Bill had an importance beyond the party policy of the African National Congress. Another of the panellists was less coy and made it clear that his point of departure was explicitly motivated by this concern.
In practical terms, he was right. It’s probably not really possible to disentangle the Bill, the general malaise in governance and cadre deployment as a specific and acknowledged strategy employed by the ruling party.
My own argument to the Committee went from the (uncontroversial) premise that a competent state is a necessity and an asset, while a compromised state is a liability. It is now common cause that the South African state is not working as it should. This failure is enabling corruption and more seriously, it is undermining the state’s developmental aspirations, and the prospects for the private sector.
Politicisation is central to this. A review document by the National Planning Commission had this to say: ‘Staff at all levels of the government bureaucracy should have the authority, experience, competence and support needed to do their jobs. A significant challenge and contradiction that goes against the developmental state aspiration of South Africa identified is the rejection of meritocracy in the country’s public service. Persons are appointed to jobs in State-Owned Entities and the public service without the requisite experience, skills or gravitas as a result of inappropriate political involvement in selection and performance management.’
The NPC is not alone in officialdom in making arguments along these lines.
The upshot of a politicised public service is that incentives are confused and misdirected; career prospects depend on factors other than skills and performance and the professional ethos inevitably suffers. Those with particular ambition or personal growth goals will seek opportunities elsewhere. The public service will not rise above mediocrity, and may not even maintain that standard.
The Public Service Commission has been one of the great might-have-beens of the post-1994 era. It has been confined to an advisory and guidance role, rather than one of robust oversight and rule setting. Its recommendations are frequently, even typically, ignored. As two academic commentators put it: ‘Generally, the PSC plays an advisory role that is an expression of opinion and provision of guidance in general on improving public administration or service delivery without any obligation on the recipient to follow or execute the advice provided.’
The vision for an effective and developmental public service that I put forward was defined by professionalism: where performance is incentivised; skilled; ethical; career-oriented; disciplined; and non-partisan. For this to be possible, the perverse incentives of political intrusion and undue influence need to be removed. Think of it like this: the diplomatic corps is both critical for a country’s international standing and is a prime avenue for patronage. Making this work to the benefit of a country takes training and long-term commitment – foreign language skills, to name just one aspect, are particularly useful, but take time and effort to master. So, is a plum posting at an attractive salary to a nice European capital assigned as a reward to a reliable loyalist who is well known to the political supremos, or to a career professional who has done the hard work, but whose name is unknown at party headquarters?
It’s hard to see how the correct choices will be made unless the processes and systems are depoliticised, and radically so. Radical here is in the sense of getting to the root of the issue – the sort of ‘radicalism’ that we could do with a great deal more of.
Dr Schreiber’s Bill would explicitly have debarred those holding leadership positions in political parties from working in the public service, and would have introduced criminal sanctions for political interference in appointments. It would also have altered the operation and mandate of the PSC – the more technical part of this, but probably the more important. It would seek to introduce greater independence in administration and budgeting.
So, this Bill would codify (or attempt to) hard, definitive limits on political intrusion. It would provide a prompt for better internal management within the public service. Fortifying the PSC’s autonomy and enhancing its role would help to give it teeth; mandating it to enforce meritocracy in appointment and performance management would put the institution to good use.
This would further strengthen the PSC’s ability to drive and monitor the public service reform that has been the subject of so much discussion, not least by the President himself.
The creation of a ‘capable state’ has been a recurrent commitment of this presidency. In his State of the Nation Address, the President remarked: ‘We will soon be finalising a framework for the professionalisation of the public service. This will include tighter measures for recruitment of public servants, continuous professional development through the National School of Government and partnerships between state bodies, professional associations and universities.’ The document in question, published in the Government Gazette in December 2020 was entitled National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service. (Towards the IMPLEMENTATION, mind!)
As an idea, though, all this is not new, as powerful, activist state with a strong developmental commitment has been central to the ANC’s conception of its governance since before the transition. It’s also a theme that runs through the Constitution.
A perhaps cadre deployment – introduced while the ink on the 1996 Constitution was barely dry – was (in some misguided part) a genuine attempt to ensure that the ‘revolutionary’ fervour of the ANC’s activists would translate into an obsessive developmental mission. That it was in flat contradiction to the letter and spirit of constitutional governance in South Africa needs to be mentioned; but in practical terms it contributed to the hollowing out of the state.
As the Zondo Commission demonstrated, cadre deployment was unconstitutional, illegal and ruinous. Unsurprisingly, the response from the ANC and President Ramaphosa was to welcome the report, solemnly pledge to deal with the issues, and then to proceed emphatically to reject those that are politically inconvenient. As President Ramaphosa’s court papers on a matter brought by the DA against cadre deployment put it – this was in his capacity as head of state, his response therefore paid with taxpayer coin – cadre deployment is a fine practice, completely in line with international (best?) practice, and it is in fact Zondo and his R1 billion commission that is mistaken, since the recommendations are not binding.
(There’s a part of me that can’t get a line from the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie out of my head: ‘The code is more like what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.’ Make of that what you will.)
The same reasoning came up in the committee. There was a pious innocence professed about cadre deployment, and a swipe at Chief Justice Zondo: ‘Judge Zondo is not governing on our behalf.’ (Another part of me couldn’t help recalling Jacob Zuma’s 2011 remarks that opposition parties are trying to use the courts to ‘co-govern’ the country, or his comments a decade later about South Africa becoming a ‘judicial dictatorship’. Or ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe’s pledges in 2015 – in the wake of the scandal around the government’s refusal to act on an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ‘court orders like this will from time to time be disregarded’. Make of that, too, what you will.)
The Bill was rejected by the committee, though without going to a vote. Sad, but not surprising. The Committee Chair helpfully permitted himself some latitude towards the end to make the emphatic point that there is ‘nothing wrong’ with cadre deployment. Consistency with the views of the President, at least.
Besides, some members argued, the government was working on reforms that would be far superior to what was being proposed. It’s true enough that all this has been discussed for a long time, but nothing concrete is on the table. In fact, the only concrete commitment seems to be that the ANC will continue with its cadre deployment initiative and that the state will remain politicised, with all the baggage that this implies.
Incidentally, I understand that the National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service has been returned to cabinet. Finalising it ‘soon’ is a flexible notion.
All in all, this was disappointing. The possibility existed for the elected representatives of South Africa’s people to look beyond their partisan agendas and to address a real and serious malignancy in government. Most chose not to. Most denied the nature of the problem, even while official documents leave little doubt about it. But in this – in their defence, such as I can offer one – they do but follow the lead of the President.
South Africa will continue to pay a steep price for this.