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To perform or not to perform – the strange world of ministerial ‘performance’


Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few bestselling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and adviser to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.

President Jacob Zuma  wants his ministers to sign “performance agreements”. Does this mean they never had any idea of what their jobs were before, or is this just a cheap points-scoring ploy?

It struck me as strange the other day when I read about government ministers signing “performance agreements”. I’d heard the president mention it before, but dismissed it as mere politicking. When I heard it again, I thought, sarcastically, “My goodness, are they finally agreeing to perform?”

In the world most of us know – the real world – it goes without saying that, when you accept a job, it is assumed that you will perform your functions. Most jobs come with a “job description”, that sets out what is expected of you, you know, “deliverables” (though I hate that word), and how your performance is to be measured.  And you say, “Okay, I understand all that and I reckon I can perform.”  And so you sign on the dotted line. If you don’t do your job, you get fired. Okay, not always immediately. Maybe you get a few warnings, after which you are demoted and then fired. But if you do your duties well, you get to keep your job. And if you do them really well, you may get a bonus.

So why would it be necessary for you sign a different, specific “performance agreement”? Doesn’t that send all the wrong messages to people? Even schoolchildren know (or should know) what is expected of them if they are to “measure up”, succeed and move on. At a time when we are trying to create a culture of responsibility and accountability, why does our leadership feel the need to patronise each other and the public in this way?

In Parliament the president went on to say, “These detailed delivery agreements will clarify roles, mandates, resources and other critical information. We urge honourable members to bear with us while we conclude this groundbreaking process which will truly change the way government works.”

Honestly, it cannot be the case that a document that sets one’s responsibilities in an existing role is a “groundbreaking” development. What does it say about former ministers? Where did they get their directives and job descriptions? And, more to the point, did they do their jobs at all?

With all the layers of accountability, starting with the Constitution, which all ministers swear to uphold on taking office, their responsibilities as ministers, the ambits of their roles, and their obligations towards the citizens, the office they’re assuming and the country as a whole, performance is very clearly delineated. Even before that, there are the political manifestos, which every minister, by virtue of belonging to a campaigning party, commits to, promising to deliver on the party’s detailed policies and programmes. When they come into government, surely, they take a quick review and say, well, let’s do as we promised to do.

Then throughout the year there are cabinet meetings, lekgotlas, community izimbizos, reports to parliamentary committees – to name just a few layers of accountability and delivery check points.

Then I remembered this applied in that “alien world” occupied by government ministers. These are the same people who know what time work starts, but are given cars with flashing lights to rush them to work on time, while the rest of us in the real world have to wake up in time to try to navigate traffic. And even when there’s no traffic to hinder ministers, they get rushed to their destinations as if it came as a surprise that they had a particular engagement. And we all know it was no surprise at all because, trust me, getting a government minister to come to a function is no child’s play.

More interesting is that the president told Parliament that these “performance agreements” were not intended to generate media headlines about who was and who was not doing their jobs, who should be praised and who should be fired. It is not even a punitive measure.

If it’s not an accountability or punitive measure, exactly why is there this additional layer of management and contracting? The ANC government has appointed ministers three times in the last 15 years; are we to understand that on all those occasions there were no job descriptions? Or is this the old standoff between colleagues about who’s doing a better job?

All this smacks of cheap PR and easy points scoring. At best, it is extraordinary.


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