President Cyril Ramaphosa tells us that perhaps the most pressing challenge facing his government is ‘the need to build a capable state’.
South African citizens may be pardoned a sceptical response for he nowhere mentions abandoning cadre deployment or the racial constraints on employment his own party has imposed, let alone the ceaseless process of generating rentals that constitutes the ANC’s method of governance.
In his weekly newsletter in mid-January, Ramaphosa suggests that his party is committed to ‘end the practice of poorly qualified individuals being parachuted into positions of authority through political patronage’. But his diagnosis of the problem – that the ‘poor qualifications’ of ANC-deployed civil servants undermine ‘service delivery’ – is simply trivial. He does not come close to grasping the real dimensions of the problem.
The state in South Africa is mostly inefficient, often corrupt and nation-breakingly expensive because it has been reconstructed in the image of the party that governs. It is more important to the ANC that it is racially representative than that it is effective, more important that it provides jobs to cadres than that it is efficient, and more important that it is loyal than that it is impartial. These are not vices that will be addressed by sending officials on block-release courses at the National School of Government.
It could have all been so different. The vision agreed during South Africa’s transition was of a professional, skilled and, above all, independent civil service. It was to be governed by a Public Service Commission (PSC) which would be responsible for all ‘appointments, promotions, transfers, discharge and other career incidents’ of all civil servants. This vision was derived from the British and American experience where the appointment and promotion of civil servants is controlled by independent bodies to insulate them from the patronage instincts of the prevailing political elite.
But the possibility of an efficient modern civil service was destroyed with the passing of the Public Service Act in 1997. The Act stripped the PSC of its powers, reducing it to an ombudsman and vesting control over civil service careers with ministers. It also, almost in passing, removed ‘merit’ as a criterion for civil service appointments.
This was the moment where civil service was re-politicised and it is no coincidence that the ANC formalised its own Deployment Committee the same year. Public Servants had been guaranteed their jobs until 1999 (the ‘Sunset Clause’) but voluntary severance packages, adopted almost immediately after the adoption of the 1996 (Final) Constitution, opened up almost 50 000 positions in central and provincial government within six months. That represented a fearsome loss of capacity as admitted by no one less than public service minister Zola Skweyiye, in Parliament, the following year.
The re-politicisation of the civil service coincided with ANC policy to re-racialise appointments. The 1997 White Paper on Affirmative Action in the Civil Service enshrined the goal of racial representativity. The 1998 Employment Equity Act extended this ambition to society more generally. It appeared to be based on the ANC’s claim that ‘redress’ required the division of society into ascriptive (racial) groups and their unequal treatment in public policy. However, a more ideological motive was already visible in a 2006 ANC Discussion Document called ‘The State and Social Transformation’. It argued that the ‘aspirations of this (black) majority (should) assume the status of hegemony’ and ‘guide policy and practice of all institutions of government and state’.
The problem with this emphasis on party loyalty and racial status is that these considerations trump ‘the right financial and technical skills and other skills’ that President Ramaphosa now claims to be seeking. What would have been a better basis for future policy would be to admit what is apparent to everyone – that it is impossible to have a state which is, on the one hand, racially representative and party partisan, and on the other capable and efficient.
Ramaphosa’s words will not disguise the contradiction. A choice needs to be made and we all know that the president is not good at those.
David Christianson was commissioned by the Institute of Race Relations to write this article.