Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: Tuesday Editorial

Social justice needs a capable state – so what is civil society doing about it?

Healthcare workers and patients in the casualty ward at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Unless addressed soon state incapacity may prove as much of a millstone as State Capture. This is not an issue where civil society can sit on the sidelines. Strategies need to evolve to meet the Covid moment.

In the past few months we have seen the best and the worst of South Africa’s government and public service. 

On the one hand we have seen the efforts of heroic healthcare workers and managers to save lives during the Covid-19 third wave and to fully vaccinate more than 6.5 million people so far. They have reminded us that a capable public health service is literally a matter of life and death.

On the other hand we have seen bumbling and maladministration; a failure to roll out essential grants to people in desperate need; poorly drafted legislation and regulations on independent electricity generation that cause paralysis and further delays; industrial-scale corruption and murder.

The former must be celebrated. 

Despite everything, South Africa still has a small army of dedicated and professional public servants. Some of their efforts and sacrifices are recognised annually in the Integrity Icon awards presented by Accountability Lab

The less said about the latter the better. 

But unfortunately it is the latter that blights service delivery and deepens inequality.

By default state failure reminds us of how vital a well-run public administration is to protecting life and dignity, achieving social justice, equality and the vision of the Constitution.

A few weeks ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his weekly letter, declared “the era of State Capture over” – while admitting that we have not yet defeated corruption. In his speech to the Zondo Commission he talked of the need to build a capable state, claiming: “One of the critical projects currently under way to strengthen the state involves the professionalisation of the public service.” The aim, he said, is “to ensure that the public service is shorn of political partisanship and that the most qualified individuals enter its ranks”.

Ramaphosa repeated these sentiments in his Political Overview to the ANC NEC Lekgotla at the weekend.

Noting that “in several advanced economies there has been a shift from a conservative, neoliberal approach towards the encouragement of fiscal spending, alongside a move from debt fears to a preference for overheating”, he added that South Africa needs to “give consideration to a significant expansion of public and social employment”. 

This position was confirmed in Ramaphosa’s closing remarks where he talked about “a state that is developmental in orientation and capable in operation”.

Ramaphosa is not out on a limb. In a new book, Rescue: From Global Crisis to a Better World, Oxford University professor of globalisation and development, Ian Goldin, declares: “Big government is back.” 

He notes that “building back better” from Covid “will require a significant expansion of government”. But he is careful to add that “this is not about more omnipotent governments, but rather more strategic and smart ones”.  In fact Goldin distinguishes “big governments” like the US and the UK from nimble governments like New Zealand “whose achievements have not been made by being bigger or more oppressive, but rather by being smarter”.

“The pandemic has broken taboos about what governments can spend, how they can regulate and how they can learn.”

So Ramaphosa is on the money. There can be no question that South Africa needs a strong public service. But whose responsibility is it to make this happen?

With the Zondo Commission’s report due before the end of the year, with Zuma (briefly) in prison, with the July riots reminding us how hungry our society is, our country may be reaching a turning point in the life-and-death battle against State Capture. Does that mean it is time for civil society to look ahead and ask what other steps are needed to rebuild the state? 

Is it now time for activists to consider how to replenish state institutions, as well as to create an effective interface with the government to ensure delivery of socioeconomic rights?

State incapacity is a threat to social justice

This is an urgent issue because, unless addressed soon, state incapacity may prove as much of a millstone as State Capture. 


Despite our many dedicated public servants today we have a public administration largely incapable of realising the Constitution’s promise.

The push factors of corruption and austerity have led to a situation where there is more expertise outside government than within it. Denuded by outsourcing and underinvestment, the government constantly farms out research and policy development to experts and consultants, but then has little or no internal capacity or managerial skill to implement the recommendations it receives back.

As a result a multitude of expensive reports, guidelines and recommendations gather dust on the shelf. 

This is a mortal danger to democracy and the pursuit of equality. 

The truth is that just as criminal justice depends on a criminal justice system, achieving social justice depends on a social justice system. And much of this system must be built within the government. 

Realising human rights needs effective and efficient regulatory systems, professional financial and human resource management, and motivated and properly remunerated public servants.

Take the healthcare system as an example: to deliver the constitutional right to healthcare services in addition to doctors and nurses we need a host of regulatory bodies (the Health Professions Council of SA, the Council for Medical Schemes, Sahpra, the Office of Health Standards Compliance, the SA Nursing Council, to name a few), competent provincial health departments, effective hospital administrators, and strong financial managers.

Yet at the moment what we have is the opposite. The system often works against the delivery of healthcare rather than for it! 

So it’s no surprise that there is a huge gap between good policy and poor implementation.

The role of civil society

Recently organisations like the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) have been trying to focus attention on public service reform, but one wonders how much traction they are getting within the activist community more broadly.

Let’s be blunt. Civil society’s job is not only to bark from the outside. The aim of activists should be to engage in everything necessary to deliver the promise of an equal and sustainable society.

Since the early 2000s civil society activists of every hue have campaigned to advance social justice, whether it be in relation to rights to healthcare services, basic education, access to housing or sufficient food. 

Activists have also fought against the threats to social justice, be it corruption, State Capture or, increasingly, the inescapable consequences of failure to mitigate global heating. 

Activists have successfully used constitutionally protected rights to protest. Public impact litigation has been used as an instrument to shape state policy and the distribution of resources to meet the needs of the poor and vulnerable. 

Activists have won some battles and drawn others.

But in the past few years, even when civil society wins in the courts or the streets, court orders or pro-poor policy initiatives often get stymied at the point of implementation. As a result change comes so slowly that it is often too late for millions of people. Education is an example. For a pupil each year lost is irrecoverable and a cause of permanent disadvantage.

Witness, for example, the drawn-out impasse over school pit toilets or the wonderful policy on minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure – and the woeful delivery despite a 2018 court order

In this struggle one thing civil society has largely overlooked so far is the capability of public administration to bring about pro-poor reforms. This fatal omission needs a course correction urgently.

But what does this mean practically and how can we ensure this happens?

In 1994, after apartheid was finally ended, many activists understood the need to go and work in the public service – not to be confused with those who choose to be politicians – as the natural path to continue the quest for social justice. 

The experience was not a good one. In the years that followed many were driven out; others left government because they found it impossible to work through the bureaucracy and maladministration.

But if we are to make the state work there will have to be a plan about how this is going to happen and how quickly. It cannot be trusted to the government alone.

But we don’t have time to bugger about on this.  

For all Ramaphosa’s parrot-talk of a capable state, however, evidence of real political will is mixed. Strategies and plans are half-baked or lack urgency. The National School of Government, for example, is a great idea but needs integration and accessibility. Its success is imperative and urgent. More shocks to the state are imminent and in the wings. We don’t have time to bugger about.

The draft National Implementation Framework towards Professionalisaton of the Public Service needs political commitment, a time frame and resources. Replacing a competent Minister of Public Service and Administration, Senzo Mchunu, with an incompetent and compromised one, Ayanda Dlodlo, is hardly a sign of seriousness.  

We don’t have time to bugger about.

There’s also the small problem of how a capable state will be financed. Ramaphosa told the ANC lekgotla: “These interventions will have significant budget implications, and we have to find ways to implement them without compromising our fiscal trajectory.” That, Mr President, is like trying to fit a camel through the eye of the austerity needle.

So yes, dear comrades, an independent civil society, just like the media, is an essential but insufficient part of good governance. It is not an end in itself. An independent and strong civil society squaring up against a perpetually weak state will never deliver social justice. Faced with a broken state, we must admit that critique is easier than reconstruction. Policy advocacy is easier than policy implementation. Our job is to hoe the hard row. It’s time to get our hands dirty again.     


A quick guide to what the Constitution says about the state

According to the Constitution’s Preamble, South Africa is a country founded on the cornerstone of social justice and equality. 

Our supreme law promises “to improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of all”. 

To do that the state “must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights” including health, housing, basic education, sufficient food and water, and a healthy environment.

In the hands of any government that is elected at any level the public administration and powers vested in the state are meant to be a sword wielded to serve the people of South Africa to achieve these objectives.

The Constitution requires that “all spheres of the Government and all organs of state” work cooperatively “to secure the wellbeing of the people of the Republic”. 

Section 195 provides a list of nine basic values and principles governing public administration (read them here). 

Although S237 requires that “all constitutional obligations must be performed diligently and without delay”, achieving a functional and rights-oriented government was always going to be an uphill struggle: the state we inherited in 1994 was weak and divided. That was inevitable after 350 years of colonialism and segregation in access to education and work experience.

Nevertheless, 25 years after the Constitution was passed the state is nowhere near these lofty mandates. Nearly a decade of State Capture and austerity have weakened systems of accountability and driven honest public servants out of positions. Public administration has become weaker and weaker. 

As a result, so has service delivery. Rights are in retreat.

Today the fact that anything works or holds together at all is often less to do with the management of the state than with the public servants who work within it and make a plan.

Active citizenship, together with the state institutions supporting constitutional democracy, has worked hard at getting the ANC government to fulfil its duties. Civil society has often pitted itself against the executive and the legislature – arguing for bigger budgets, more political will or against policy or law that threatens the interests of poor people. 

However, in doing so activists have sometimes conflated political representatives with public servants. As a result, there are some people who think that civil society is intrinsically against the state and by association the public service. 

That’s not true.

The South African state exists to advance social justice. That’s why it’s time to work together to rebuild it. DM/MC


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