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Weak candidates make the cut in public service due to ‘exceptionally’ low requirements – report
A new report, launched on Tuesday, calls for the public service to be depoliticised and insulated from politics.
The ruling party’s controversial cadre deployment policy “is not the problem” on its own, but rather it exploits an opportunity in the structure of the way government is organised, says director of the New South Institute and author of a new report on personalising and depersonalising power, Ivor Chipkin.
Authors of the report titled Personalising and Depersonalising Power, Chipkin and advocate Michelle le Roux, conversed with Daily Maverick associate editor Ferial Haffajee during a webinar on Tuesday about the role of the public service and the separation between politics and administration.
Chipkin and Le Roux’s interest in the topic was sparked during the tumultuous State Capture years.
“State Capture, at the time, seemed to be targeting the appointment of key state officials; replacing experienced professionals with other candidates who were partisan to the State Capture project,” explained Chipkin.
In their research, the duo was trying to reckon with the question of how easy this was and what was allowing it to happen, so they turned to the broader legislative environment.
The National School of Government published the draft National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service for public comment, at the end of 2020. The framework recognised that professionalising the public service required “a non-partisan approach” and called for it to be depoliticised and insulated from politics.
According to Chipkin, it foregrounded two key principles.
“For the first time in South African history, it privileges the idea of meritocratic recruitment of the public servants, and secondly, it mutes the idea of better insulating public servants from inappropriate political interference – in other words, constituting a public administration which has professionalism and autonomy to do its job,” he explained.
The National Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Sector was approved by Cabinet on 19 October 2022, and the Public Service Commission has been tasked with the implementation of the framework, according to Chipkin.
However, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address in February gave no indication of progress or implementation. A subsequent presentation by Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana in his Budget Speech also kept mum on the issue.
“I know we are tremendously cynical in South Africa, for good reason, about the ability of the government to translate anything into action…
“Many of the problems that we are facing now relate to the quality of our institutions and the ability of institutions to work. I think a door has been opened to begin to address some of the fundamental problems affecting those institutions,” he said.
Chipkin added that this was part of the reason he and Le Roux had written their report – to assist the process of implementation, beginning by laying out a legislative agenda to take the framework forward.
— New South Institute (NSI) (@the_nsi) February 28, 2023
The report considers the legislation governing key state institutions and asks what minimum criteria it requires for the appointment of public officials.
The researchers looked at how key appointments were made and found the requirements to be appointed in many senior state positions were exceptionally minimal. The only requirement to be appointed commissioner of police, for example, is to not have a criminal record.
Chipkin said the pair believed the very low requirements, or minimum conditions, for appointments “was done deliberately”. This was the crux of the problem and poor selection of candidates.
“This was not an accident,” he said, adding that it sheds some light on the question of cadre deployment.
“The fact is that key senior appointments – ministers and the President – have very, very wide discretion to appoint who they want, because the criteria for those appointments is so slim,” Chipkin explained.
Last month, the Pretoria High Court ordered the ANC to hand over its cadre deployment committee records to the DA within five days. This came after the DA brought an application to have the ruling party’s controversial policy declared unconstitutional and unlawful.
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The ANC’s policy of cadre deployment was adopted in the 1980s, in the heat of the struggle against apartheid.
Speaking during the Daily Maverick webinar on Tuesday, Chipkin said: “The problem is not cadre deployment. Rather, cadre deployment exploits an opportunity which is there in the structure of the way government is organised. The fact is that key senior appointments – ministers and the President – have very, very wide discretion to appoint who they want, because the criteria for those appointments is so slim.”
The Constitutional Court had tried to expand and give meaning to the notion of “fit and proper” contained in the legislation, which would limit the discretion of ministers and the President.
But largely, in key positions in state institutions – the head of the South African Revenue Service (SARS) for example – the conditions, restrictions and requirements for those positions were very minimal.
“This fosters an environment where political discretion is enormous,” Chipkin said, adding that when one compares this with key state appointments in other countries, one realises just how unusual the situation is.
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Haffajee noted that a large part of Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s State Capture Commission report drew attention to why cadre deployment is unconstitutional and unlawful and, also very persuasively argued by Zondo, unnecessary in the framework of our law. Haffajee laid out Zondo’s bombshell findings on cadre deployment here.
Even with the publication of the framework, “we still see the governing party, and even the bigger opposition parties, still quite wedded to their ability to appoint the officials they want to, and to not choose the best among us”.
“I have no problem with politicians in the executive… wanting like-minded people to be their officials; their technocrats. That happens all over the world,” said Le Roux.
“Public service has always served a very interesting political role in South Africa. It was a means of creating an Afrikaans white middle class under apartheid, and the public sector has been a very successful developer of a de-racialised middle class in this country,” she said, adding that there is a transformative potential in being a public servant.
In his report, Zondo had luminously highlighted that public service cannot only be about political make-up and allegiance, but about harnessing all the talent in the country.
Le Roux gave the example of the mobilisation and collaboration that took place during the Covid-19 pandemic, between world-class experts in certain fields in the public sector. “But we also had PPE corruption,” she said.
“Covid-19 showed us the potential of the talent within our public service sector, and then it showed us the dark side which is corruption… There are always going to be the worst instincts of human nature in play. The question is how do you harness the very best and most talented people that we have in this country.” DM
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