South Africa


Zola Skweyiya’s contribution to South Africa should not be forgotten

Zola Skweyiya’s contribution to South Africa should not be forgotten
The late Dr Zola Skweyiya. (Photo: Roger Sedres / Gallo Images / Getty Images)

He was a colossus, an accomplished man in the many trying terrains of his life. His lasting imprint in the post-apartheid society is yet to be fully synthesised and recorded.

“If he [a leader or teacher] is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.” – Khalil Gibran.

A few days before South Africa celebrates 26 years as a democracy, on 21 April 2020, marks two years from the day Dr Zola Skweyiya’s remains were laid to rest. His remarkable contributions and achievements in South Africa’s post-apartheid society rightfully earned him the recognition through a Special Official Funeral, Category 1, which is for a person with extraordinary credentials. Skweyiya remains one of the key architects of post-apartheid South Africa. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his eulogy at the funeral, gave a fitting tribute when he described Skweyiya as “an ambassador of goodwill, a servant of his people and a courageous son of the soil… we had nothing to say but console ourselves with the knowledge that he had served his people well and played his role in the struggle for freedom… a man who shared the dream of the dispossessed, the marginalised and… Yes! the suffering”. 

Skweyiya was a colossus, an accomplished man in the many trying terrains of his life. His lasting imprint in the post-apartheid society is yet to be fully synthesised and recorded. He coordinated the ANC’s Constitutional Affairs Committee. Albie Sachs, former Justice of the Constitutional Court, made the illuminating comment that if the South African Constitution were to have a father, it will have the DNA of Oliver Tambo; Pallo Jordan came with the idea of rights in the Constitution, Zola Skweyiya was the midwife! This comment was made at a conference in honour of Skweyiya hosted by the College of Law at Unisa, on 2-3 October 2018. 

Skweyiya was the first minister of public service and administration in the democratic era under President Nelson Mandela, from April 1994 to May 1999, during which period he championed the transformation of and reshaped the South African public service to become an embodiment of the values based on Batho Pele – Putting People First. He was minister of social development for a decade from June 1999 to May 2009. It was at the Department of Social Development that his better known, lasting and epoch-making political leadership and policy decisions were gallantly demonstrated. 

This includes, but is not limited to, the inventive manner in which he was able to rally civil society organisations, community structures and organised business around the common objective of fighting poverty in all its manifestations, based on his Ten-Point-Plan. He repositioned the National Development Agency (NDA) to be an agency that ensured the sustainability of civil society organisations as important partners in the fight against poverty and underdevelopment through mobilising and serving as a reliable conduit for funding from government and official development assistance from international development cooperation partners. 

Skweyiya also championed the course for the development of a comprehensive social security system for the country and the establishment of the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa).  To this day, Sassa remains one of the most recognised institutions, not just state agency, in post-apartheid South Africa. Skweyiya supported a Basic Income Grant in South Africa, an idea that has again gained currency as a response to the Covid-19 epidemic and the devastating economic impact on households living in poverty.

It is in honour of the fruitful decade at Social Development that this tribute seeks, within the constraints of space and time, to pick just one out of many groundbreaking developments championed by Skweyiya at Social Development. 

He brought into the Department of Social Development social policy as a way of thinking about social and economic challenges facing South Africa and evidence-based policy-making (EBPM) as the foundation for evidence-informed solutions. He had a vision for comprehensive human and social development which has a synergistic relation to economic development. The decision on EBPM and the steps taken emanated from an understanding of the interplay between political objectives, state capacity and the competence of the public service in policy-making. It was his conviction that the post-apartheid project demanded highly skilled and informed bureaucrats to drive the agenda of policy-making and policy implementation. 

In the year 2000, after extensive national consultations, the then Department of Welfare and Population Development was renamed the Department of Social Development. As stated in the 2001 document, “The Road to Social Development: Building a Caring Society Together” this marked “a journey from the welfare approach of the past to Social Development. A paradigm shift from the tradition of helping the poor through handouts, to empowerment of individuals and communities to be self-reliant and be the main partners in the fight against poverty … the ongoing changes being introduced by the Minister of Social Development, Dr Zola Skweyiya, epitomise the new focus and holistic and integrative view that the Ministry and the entire Department has adopted in addressing the daunting socio-economic challenges facing the Department and not least the government as a whole.”

For purposes of this article, we acknowledge at least three related developments in the post-1994 period which informed Skweyiya’s realisation of the pressing requirement to build capacity in evidence-based policy-making. 

The first was South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution and the social and economic rights enshrined in it. The Constitution was approved by the Constitutional Court in December 1996 and took effect on 4 February 1997. The vision of the Constitution demands implementation through decisions of the Executive and policy-making. The Children’s Act (Act No. 38 of 2005) and Skweyiya’s unyielding fight to extend the Child Support Grant to 18 years as per the definition of a child in the Constitution, are just two of many examples of how he brought the import of the constitution to the work of the department. 

The second development was the ANC’s 50th Conference held in Mafikeng (now Mahikeng) in December 1997.  An observation was made that the ANC was in power, yet millions of black South Africans lived in extreme poverty. One of the crucial questions at the conference was “What is the meaning of the Constitution for South Africa’s ‘new citizens’ that faced racial discrimination during the colonial, segregation and apartheid periods?”  The resolutions of the 50th Conference were numerous and broad in scope, reflecting an era of heightened policy-making activity starting from 1994 with the installation of the new government under the leadership of the ANC. Resolutions were taken on the Child Support Grant, healthcare delivery, a national health insurance system, a comprehensive social security system, training for developmental social welfare, free and compulsory education and many other social and economic issues.   

The third was Skweyiya’s initiative as minister of social development, that is, the appointment of the Taylor Committee and the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into a Comprehensive System of Social Security for South Africa: Transforming the Present Protecting the Future, published in March 2002. 

The weight of the Taylor Committee report, lies not only in Skweyiya’s far-sighted leadership and the members of the committee, but also in the depth and range of expertise brought on board through the many academics, research institutions, non-governmental agencies, universities, international experts, international agencies, the UN expert group on social protection and others. 

At the University of Oxford, Department of Social Policy and Social Work, the Taylor Committee held a three-day symposium in December 2000 which provided a platform for engagement with UK experts on social protection and social policy. This engagement resulted in a social policy, research and policy-making partnership between the University of Oxford and the Department of Social Development through the Centre for the Analysis of South African Social Policy.  

The terms of reference of the Taylor Committee included investigating the national pensions system, social assistance grants, social insurance schemes, unemployment insurance and health funding and insurance. The report of the committee, published in March 2002, provided a blueprint for a post-apartheid comprehensive social security system.

It was in this climate of policy considerations that the Department of Social Development under Skweyiya established the social policy programme in 2006 with the aim to introduce and institutionalise evidence-based policy-making. 

What is evidence-based policy-making? 

The commonly adopted understanding comes from Philip Davies in the Jerry Lee Lecture “Is Evidence-Based Government Possible?” presented at the 4th Annual Campbell Collaboration Colloquium, Washington, DC, in February 2004. It is seen as an approach that “helps people make well informed decisions about policies, programmes and projects by putting the best available evidence from research at the heart of policy development and implementation”. Developments in policy analysis and policy-making have led to an appreciation that policy-making unfolds in political, social, cultural contexts in which power relations, the economy, competing interests abound, leading to the conceptual alignment to evidence-informed policy-making.

The initiative on EBPM was founded on a partnership with the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Oxford. The specific objectives were: a pro-poor policy research and training infrastructure; a pro-poor research programme to inform policy development within government; an evidence base for pro-poor social policy; research to be translated into policy implementation and information to be disseminated and public debate promoted. 

The partnership between the Department of Social Development, the Centre for the Analysis of South African Social Policy, University of Oxford, and the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER), Rhodes University, saw an annual training course for policymakers in the Department of Social Development and many other national and provincial departments. Over an 11-year period hundreds of senior and middle level civil servants whose role involved policy-making benefited from the social policy and policy analysis course which started in 2005 with the last session held in collaboration with the Office of the Premier in North West province in March 2016. 

The University of Oxford, in recognition of the leadership and contribution in the area of social development and social policy, honoured Skweyiya with the annual Dr Zola Skweyiya Lecture on South African Social Policy. He delivered the inaugural lecture entitled “Building an inclusive, comprehensive and non-discriminatory social welfare system in post-apartheid South Africa: A reflection on achievements and continuing challenges” on 17 May 2011.

Under Skweyiya, the Department of Social Development established the Charlotte Manye Maxeke Collaboration in Economics of Social Protection with the Department of Economics, University of Pretoria. The objective was to facilitate and promote the understanding of the economics of social protection in the Department of Social Development and contribute to the formulation of sound and effective policies. Politically, the goal was to advance cogent arguments that social security, as provided in the Constitution and fully expanded on in the Taylor Committee report, is not mere expenditure but an investment that contributes significantly to human development. In South Africa, at the time, it was crucial that the social assistance programme (non-contributory social grants derived directly from the fiscus) through its contribution to, among other benefits, child development in nutrition, education and general well-being was a fight against poverty and an investment in the future of South Africa, and not an unnecessary drain on the fiscus. The body of research on social grants in South Africa demonstrates improved access to food, education, better health outcomes, basic goods and services. 

As part of the recognition of his championship of social policy in South Africa, Skweyiya was elected and served as president of the Unesco Management of Social Transformations (MOST) Programme, and was part of the programme’s intellectual ensemble that campaigned for the research-policy nexus approach which forges links between politics and decision making, and social science knowledge. The MOST Programme operated at the interface between research, policy and practice and focused on promoting evidence-based policy-making at the national, regional and international levels. 

During his tenure as president of the MOST Programme, the formation of regional forums of ministers of social development in different regions of the world was expedited. One of the central goals of the regional forums was to provide a space for the coordination of joint regional strategies on social policy directed at achieving human, social and economic development. 

In the SADC region, the Department of Social Development hosted the first meeting of the Forum of Ministers of Social Development in Cape Town, in November 2004. This was followed by another meeting of ministers of social development and high-level senior officials held in Johannesburg in November 2006 and facilitated by the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs. Over and above the commitments to work together on social development issues in the region, the ministers adopted the document “Towards an African Regional Social Policy, Johannesburg Draft”, SADC Ministerial Meeting, Johannesburg.

In the view of Skweyiya, the complex intractable social and economic development challenges faced by the democratic government demanded solutions that are based, not on untested opinion, but rigorous and systematic research, and not just once-off studies. He had a vision of an informed, knowing and grounded senior civil servants corps and policymakers with a regional, continental and global perspective who were in command of the policy process from conceptualisation to design, implementation and impact evaluation. These were charged with the responsibility to give meaning to the social and economic rights in the Constitution. 

Conceptual clarity was the hallmark of the man, urging at all times his senior bureaucrats not to settle for what is simple and achievable, but that which was the product of robust interrogation and investigation. Skweyiya held the view that it was through policy decisions and policy-making, driven by research evidence, that the vision of the Constitution was to be realised. DM

Dr Wiseman Khehla Magasela is executive director of Clermont Analytics, a research, policy development and advisory forum. He is a former deputy director-general (Research and Policy Development) and ministerial adviser at the Department of Social Development.


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