CIVIL SERVICE OP-ED
SA needs a professional public service with relative autonomy
Rebuilding a state that works for all cannot be conceived purely at the level of clean ups and ‘orange overalls’. The need for a professional civil service that has relative autonomy in making decisions within their field of competence has been neglected, especially on the left. Political heads need to allow professionals space to act within their competence.
The all-around crisis that engulfs South Africa stares us in the face. The level of crime appears beyond the capacity of police to control even if they had the desire. Many clearly do not have the inclination to perform their duties and are themselves complicit in criminality through the selling of arms, and several other illicit activities.
At the level of key state institutions, such as Eskom, we have a situation where it is now a normal feature of South African life to have load shedding as a regular part of the lives of those homes and businesses with access to electricity.
This is despite the highly professional leadership of Eskom by CEO André de Ruyter and his Chief Operating Officer, Jan Oberholzer. What has distinguished them from many of their predecessors has been their truthfulness, their readiness to tell the public exactly what is happening and not hide the seriousness of the situation.
That they speak of the possibility of stage eight load shedding and a possible total shutdown of the power supply indicates the extremely serious character of the situation. De Ruyter suggests that a return from a total shutdown may be relatively quick (and that has yet to be seen):
“We have never experienced a system blackout in South Africa,” he said, adding that the utility had a well-rehearsed plan to bring power back should the grid collapse and plunge the entire country into darkness at the same time.
De Ruyter said New York had experienced a grid failure in 1978, and it had taken a week to bring back electricity because restarting a system takes time. South Africa cannot depend on its neighbours to supply electricity, so it has a so-called ‘black start’ capability at several plants…
The crisis has been heightened by clear evidence of sabotage within Eskom (Kyle Cowan, Sabotage: Eskom Under Siege, Random House, 2022). One can speculate as to who it is who wishes to cripple an already damaged sector of the economy, which is crucial to South Africa’s economic recovery and the wellbeing of every household with the good fortune to have access to electricity. What is clear, however, is that there are among us many people who are prepared to destroy fundamental institutions of the state for whatever reason. In some cases, it may relate to internal ANC issues, but the perpetrators remain unclear.
Along with the energy crisis, we have a rail and general transport crisis, where rail transportation for goods and for persons has broken down in almost all of the country, with one or two exceptions of sporadic passenger transport on rails.
It was not so long ago that there was an intention to divert traffic from the roads and to save them from damage by heavy transport vehicles and to revive the capacity of the rail networks for purposes of export of heavy goods. There is no chance of that happening now. And the chances of recovery of the rail sector at all seem remote, with devastating consequences for the country. It is a disaster for industry. But it’s also another blow for the already financially stretched working people who must use more expensive forms of transport.
The roads themselves are also no longer fit for purpose. Statistics on the deterioration of South African roads show the downward trend to be higher than almost every other country on the continent and in the world. Business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan reported in 2021 “that more than half (54%) of the country’s unpaved road network is in poor to very poor condition, while about a third (30%) of the paved network is in poor to very poor condition.”
We have a health sector which, despite the injection of large sums of money, especially related to the Covid-19 pandemic, is in some respects on its knees. There has been building of hospitals that do not open or only function partially or burning of hospitals that have taken years to return to action and are still not adequately serviced.
Power and water for critical treatment are often unavailable in some hospitals. We have situations where NGOs like Gift of the Givers, with as little fanfare as possible, have stepped in to do the work that government is supposed to do. They obviously can’t take the place of government and what government is supposed to do. This is only a partial list of areas of public administration that are not functional.
The crisis is not only one of criminality
Those of us who were involved in the transition to democratic rule and the early years of democracy need to ask ourselves whether we paid adequate attention to issues of governance, of public service.
It is not correct to put everything down to fraud and corruption. We need to look also at how the state (mal)functions and how this has arisen, a question partly addressed in the National Development Plan (National Planning Commission. National Development Plan. The Presidency. 2011, Chapter 13.) City Press reports that the “municipal sector is on the brink of collapse, that six out of every 10 local municipalities in South Africa are not financially sustainable and are probably dysfunctional in terms of service delivery,” citing a report of Ratings Afrika. This is just one of many such reports.
We need to ask ourselves what factors at an earlier period may have contributed to or enabled the situation where public service consistently fails to perform? What factors at an earlier stage may have created the opening, apart from criminality for the failure to realise the idea of a better life for all, even in very limited respects?
When I look back at my own outlook, as a person who was part of ANC leadership at the time, I’ve come to understand that I was focused or preoccupied almost entirely with insurrectionism, with the overthrow or at least removal of the apartheid regime. I was impatient with talk of constitutional models and negotiations and did not want to be distracted from the goal of overthrowing the state and implementing a democracy for the people of South Africa. Having “taken power” in the instrumentalist language of the time, all else would follow. The processes of public service for the “better life” to ensue were not examined in debates that we had.
Those with whom I engaged did not discuss such issues as separation of party and state and similar crucial problems that we face today. (It may be that some of these issues were discussed, among some black prisoners, in State of Emergency detention, from what I have been told — but I was in isolation during most of that detention period and not part of any such debates).
With the unbanning of the ANC, I was one of those who did not really understand how processes were to unfold after elections. I was not ready for negotiations and many of us did not understand how to prepare for running the state that would be created.
I remember learning that some of the comrades from the leadership were going on civil service courses in the UK and being cynical about this, thinking that this was not for people who were revolutionaries, to go to the United Kingdom for civil service training. I thought this was inappropriate for the type of state that I had hoped we would create, albeit now modified because of the need to negotiate that solution.
Nevertheless, I had thought that we would not model what we were doing on what the UK was doing. In fact, my scepticism was based on failure to grasp the type of challenges that would be faced in implementing transformatory goals.
I mention this, because my orientation meant that I was not adequately fitted for making an input into the type of civil service and governance that we then created. I don’t think that the ANC as a whole and especially many of the Marxists in the ANC made an adequate input into the type of civil service that we needed in South Africa.
I don’t think that we understood the need and processes for political leadership to coexist with a professionalised civil service and I think that remains a problem today.
One element of the type of process needed in South Africa is the building or rebuilding of the professionalisation and technocratic skills of the public service. (From a different perspective, see the important chapter by Ivan Pillay, Sri Kesavan and Yolisa Pikie, “Governance Choices” in Greg Mills, Mcebisi Jonas, Haroon Bhorat and Ray Hartley (eds) Better Choices. Ensuring South Africa’s Future, 2022, chapter one).
We need a situation where the public service is in fact a public service and is not dependent on the minister or political head in the central government or province for every minute decision. Senior public servants need to enjoy a degree of autonomy to do their jobs with the technical proficiency they have learned.
We need a situation where professionals at various levels of the public service are empowered to make the decisions for which they are fit and ready. There has been a gradual devaluation of professionalisation and there is a very limited systematic process of growing of skills within the public service through experience, through mentoring and through building a cadreship over the years. Large sums of money are being spent on consultancy instead of growing the skills of those who are within the public service (see National Development Plan, above).
The state must be run in accordance with the Constitution and by those who are democratically elected to lead it and to ensure that it runs properly. But those who are the political leadership cannot make decisions on minutiae of policy or minutiae of implementation, where there ought to be a cadreship that has the professional and technocratic capacity to make those decisions and to train others in making those decisions and implementing those decisions.
The political heads are there to determine overall policy. Precise implementation procedures are not their job, appointment of fitting people for certain jobs that are technically orientated are not within the level of expertise of the political heads. They should step back, do what they can, insofar as they have competence in the sphere that is demarcated for political heads, but leave technocratic work to the technocrats.
Cleaning up of government, removing the thieves, is crucial but we also need to solve the problem of a malfunctioning public service and ensure that it becomes a place for drawing in promising professionals and increasing their expertise in serving the state and the transformatory goals so badly needed by the oppressed people of South Africa. DM
Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, violence, gender and sexualities. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.
This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za.
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