President Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address last month attracted a lot of attention for his novel remarks on the relative places of the state and the private sector in the creation of employment.

Given the statist orientation of so much official thinking, this was quite extraordinary. Less attention was devoted to a reiteration of a much-repeated theme: that ‘our foremost priority is to build a capable, ethical and developmental state’.

This deserves a more thorough examination than it has received. The search for a state that could ‘get things done’ has been the holy grail of post-apartheid politics. For the ANC, a strong state was the key to both rapid development and its control of society.

As the ANC put it in a 1996 document: ‘The democratic movement must resist the liberal concept of “less government”, which, while being presented as a philosophical approach towards the state in general, is aimed specifically at the weakening of the democratic state. The purpose of this offensive is precisely to deny the people the possibility to use the collective strength and means concentrated in the democratic state to bring about the transformation of society.’

This manifested itself in ‘transformation’ endeavours and commitments to an activist state. Former president Thabo Mbeki said that governance needed to be ‘targeted at helping us to meet the provision laid down in our Constitution of ‘improv(ing) the quality of life of all citizens and free(ing) the potential of each person.” Accordingly, ours must be a truly developmental state.’

In the same vein, the National Development Plan stated: ‘In a society with deep social and economic divisions, neither social nor economic transformation is possible without a capable and developmental state.’

The search for a developmental state, or (in the formulation preferred by President Ramaphosa) the ‘capable’ state, has been an elusive and unsuccessful one: as if state capture wasn’t bad enough, talk of state failure is now on the rise.

Capable state

The centrepiece of the President’s commitment to building a capable state was the professionalisation of the public service, which is awaiting finalisation. ‘This,’ he said, ‘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.’

In December 2020, a document entitled A National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service was published in the Government Gazette. The document was marked as ‘Draft’ and therefore not finalised, it nonetheless provides some useful insights into what professionalisation might entail.

First off, though, the notion that South Africa is undertaking a programme of ‘professionalisation’ is somewhat incongruous. The framework itself comments: ‘There is an assumption that professionalism is or should be an inherent characteristic in public representatives and public servants alike. However, experience has shown that this is merely wishful thinking and there is often little professionalism evident.’

This is the situation in which South Africa finds itself.

Professionalism is described as a multi-faceted concept. It refers to skills and competencies and value orientations that contribute to an individual’s ability to carry out his or her tasks. This operates within an institutional culture that generates a common understanding of the organisation’s goals and mission, and a commitment to achieving them. These are in turn influenced by the overall societal culture, its standards of ethics and its expectations.

The framework document repeatedly stresses the importance of South Africa’s Constitution as setting out the requirements for public administration. This is found in Section 195 and describes a meritocratic, developmental, honest and efficient system. We’re of course nowhere near this aspiration.

A recent vignette illustrates this. As part of the looting of resources dedicated to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, 5 812 government officials managed illegally to access the social relief grant of R350. In December the following year, minister of Public Service and Administration Ayanda Dlodlo said in response to a parliamentary question that only 242 cases were under investigation, no one implicated had been suspended and no case reported to the police.

Malfeasance and dysfunction

There was a gamut of malfeasance and dysfunction evident: corruption and entitlement, followed by a rather subdued and delayed response. More than a year had elapsed since the offences had been identified and no one had been sanctioned. While the minister pledged that anyone guilty of such fraud would be expelled from the public service and not allowed back in, the action taken up to that point suggested that not everyone implicated would be held to account. If anything, most would probably be able to shrug it off and continue with their careers.

The framework is written with copious reference to academic literature, as well as to South Africa’s own experience. Its solution to professionalisation – at the risk of oversimplifying – includes continuous skills development; inculcating service ethics; reforms to stabilise the churn in management; linking public service in particular fields with professional bodies; proper disciplinary procedures (although the document has little to say about this); and the depoliticization of the civil service.

That last point is arguably the key. Conceptually, the framework contends: ‘Professionalisation is considered as the creation of an environment of integrity that insulates public servants from any political interference, which in turn, is viewed as a precondition for Government becoming an employer of choice by people who wish to pursue their job careers for a lifetime.’

It goes on to point to the ubiquitous political influence on senior appointments. This is a complex phenomenon, but it is important to note legislative changes in the 1990s, which accorded politicians considerable powers in this respect. The unfortunate upshot was that senior civil servants have all too often become embroiled in political intrigue. As a report by the Public Affairs Research Institute diplomatically put it: ‘The Public Service Act, we have seen, does not sufficiently check and balance the power of political office bearers in making appointments and removals in the broader public service.’

‘Unnecessary turbulence’

This has created what the framework calls ‘unnecessary turbulence’ at the top, with consequent uncertainty and deficient morale cascading down to more junior colleagues. The Public Service Commission expressed concern about the extent and rate of turnover in senior management as far back as 2012.

Former head of politics and governance at the Institute of Race Relations Gareth Van Onselen produced an analysis on the turnover of ministers and Directors-General between May 2009 and July 2017, 100 months in total. Some 172 people had held the position of director-general across 38 departments, either in a permanent or acting capacity, over this period. Thus, over this period, each department had an ‘average’ of 4.5 directors-general. Directors-general served an average term of 22 months.

One academic commentator, Peter Franks, wrote in 2014: ‘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.’

Research on the disciplinary system in the public service reported that a central reason for the failure to initiate and conclude cases was that managers were reluctant to challenge powerful interests or antagonistic factions among their peers.

Nor should politicisation – both in the sense of active party-political alignment and a broader sense of factionalism and ‘office politics’ – be understood to be the province of senior management. Where political factors undermine leadership and chains of command at the top, it is likely to reproduce or encourage similar impulses below.

All of this has been a recipe for dysfunction. So, what could be done?

In general terms, the obvious solution is to ‘depoliticise’ the public service. How this is to be done is less clear. One common-sense solution is to restrict the ability of political office-bearers to make appointments, to provide for a more prominent role for external experts and the Public Service Commission in making senior appointments, and to introduce reforms to ensure the continuity and tenure that is so often lacking at that level. Part of the latter would imply removing a great deal of the influence that politicians currently have on appointments.

In an ideal world

There is nothing inherently wrong with these ideas, although it needs to be acknowledged that even in an ideal world, it will take a considerable time for them to alter the institutional culture.

What is absent from the framework is a clear recognition that politicisation has not been a process that happened spontaneously or opportunistically, at least not in the main. And it is not solely the consequence of a legal framework that has granted powers over the public service to politicians. Rather, it owes a great deal to conscious decisions taken by the ruling ANC in the 1990s deliberately to politicise the state administration through its cadre deployment initiative. This was the centrepiece of its openly declared strategy to seize all ‘levers’ of power in the state and society.

Carl Niehaus, back before his reputation suffered from revelations about his debt management, told an interviewer that there was ‘an expectation that the party line and leadership should be followed blindly, and that the judicial and democratic institutions of the state should merely be instruments to carry out ANC policy.’

And going back to the goals that the ANC had for the state, to foster development and to ensure its hegemony, it is an irony of history – though a foreseeable one – that chasing the latter ultimately crippled the former.

This was something that happened outside the formal machinery of government, behind the doors of a party committee. The revelation of the minutes of this committee for the past few years – where even CVs were being received – should alert all of us to the insidiousness of this practice. It should serve as a reminder that the depoliticization (as with the politicisation) of the civil service, and thus its professionalisation, will be a matter of choice. So, for that matter, was the Zuma-era churn of senior managers – rule, though hardly governance, by chaos.

Predictable outcome

If – as President Ramaphosa’s performance at the Zondo Commission implied – the intention is to continue with cadre deployment while – as he said at SONA – attempting to professionalise the state, the predictable outcome will be a continuation of the current malaise. Professionalisation cannot work alongside a practice designed to achieve the opposite, and the course of action will show just what the government’s ‘foremost priority’ is. Indeed, as the framework document points out, professionalism arises not just from within an organisation, but from the overall state of society and the general conduct of those who exercise influence in it.

So even if we know what has to be done, the question is whether it will be done. The choice, for now, rests firmly with the President and the party he leads. 

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.