Defend Truth


Our movement against corruption will fail without public sector reform


Ryan Brunette is a researcher at the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI). In the South African public administration, he gets involved in studies of practices such as procurement, auditing and organisational development. More broadly, he researches the world history of state bureaucracy and its politics. Sometimes he talks about railways. Other times he writes auto-bios evasively.

If South Africa’s budding anti-corruption movement simply focuses on immoral leaders and demands for accountability, it will fail. What South Africa needs is wide-ranging reform of the public administration.

On 19 August South Africans will take part in a march against corruption. As a student of South African politics and its corruption, I must express my relief at the sight of the coming movement. I must also, however, express my concerns regarding the road ahead.

There would appear, today, to be wide agreement regarding what lies at the centre of this contemporary South African malaise. The African National Congress (ANC), over the last two decades, has noticeably drifted from a politics of high ideals and claims to be ‘the common interest’, towards a politics of self-enrichment and patronage, and often of illegality.

In 1994, the state was viewed predominantly as the driver of transformative public policy. Currently, our political elite are more renowned for their use of public power to distribute government jobs, contracts and other resources through partial political and personal networks.

Having spent some time studying the South African state, I have some sense of what the consequences are. In interviews, and in less guarded moments, public servants in dysfunctional organisations speak commonly of how policy-making is driven by a desire to get tenders.

State employees will also often express their concern that politicians have instrumentalised institutional disorder in order to facilitate corrupt activities. We can see this, for example, in the preference for acting appointments, or even the rotation of office-holders in key posts in human resources, finance and supply chain management.

When we analyse these developments, we tend to proceed along the following line: Party and cadres behave in ways that we judge as bad, therefore they are bad people, and because they are bad people, they do bad things.’ This is circular reasoning. Never mind that in making such statements we are confusing our moral judgement for an explanation, and denying the relevance of a person’s situation to their behaviour. It is a weak analysis of a great societal problem.

It leads to equally unsatisfactory solutions: ‘Assert accountability; replace those bad people with good people; replace the party with a better one. Our problem is resolved.’ Except that it would not be.

Our current president, Jacob Zuma, is a product of the political party that created and then elevated him. It is a party, sometimes even in its own analysis, where the ability to find and distribute patronage is increasingly necessary to building factions and maintaining positions.

Our ruling party is also, more than anything, a product of the context in which it has been placed. This context will remain, regardless of whether the party stays or goes.

Consider the fact that South Africa today, for the most part, is largely just repeating an experience shared at some point by the majority of the world’s countries. In 19th century France, politics was defined by the generally corrupt Notabilier. The United Kingdom had earlier suffered an epoch of Old Corruption. The British settler colonies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand had similar periods. The United States exhibited a ‘spoils system’ against which contemporary South Africa pales in comparison. Latin America, a significant portion of Africa, Southern and Eastern Europe, and Asia outside of the Far East have had comparable systems. Most of the countries of the world still do.

What these examples suggest is that our ruling party has found itself at the centre of a fatal convergence. Firstly, it presides over a public administration that is not appropriately insulated from arbitrary interference, since political heads are generally free to appoint and promote as they see fit. Secondly, it is formed from a constituency that relies directly on the state to accumulate resources of property or of education.

So, in South Africa, the rightful advance of the disadvantaged has relied upon the state. Those with political and personal weight have sought to advance more surely and quickly. Political control over appointments and promotions has greatly facilitated co-ordination around these efforts.

The last point deserves emphasis. Our politicians exercise largely unfettered power over the career prospects of public servants. They can place allies at appropriate points in administrative processes. By these avenues, they have often directed that rules be circumvented as the means to an end goal of favouring themselves and their clients with jobs, public contracts and other state resources. Just about every major scandal in the history of post-Apartheid South Africa works like that: The Arms Deal, Nkandla, even Marikana.

Experience in other countries suggests that resolving such corruption requires, centrally, the creation of an independent public administration.

Germany and a number of northerly Continental European countries embarked on the necessary reforms between the late-18th and 19th centuries. Meiji Japan copied the German model. In the period between the 1850s and 1910s, the United Kingdom and the British settler colonies, notably excluding South Africa, followed suit. They resolved Old Corruption by setting up independent Public Service Commissions to administer competitive examinations, which regulated appointment and promotion in the public service. Closer to home, Botswana enjoyed decades of effective, rule-bound and relatively corruption-free public administration due to the peculiar independence of their public administration.

Such insulated processes of recruitment and promotion constitute politicians and public servants as separate organised groups. These groups follow divided career paths and are subject to distinct mechanisms of legitimacy and accountability. These mechanisms serve to produce divergent interests between them. When actors try to co-ordinate irregular activities, these divergent interests pose acute problems.

Politicians can approach public servants with corrupt bargains. Independent public servants, however, can in such cases not be disciplined by politicians. Instead, they are then accountable solely to their peer group and to public opinion. What that means is that they must weigh any financial benefit offered against the large costs associated with a potential loss of professional reputation and income security. They are, given these facts, more likely to blow the whistle and less likely to accept. In turn, politicians are more likely to check administrative corruption in which they have no stake in terms of patronage or financial benefit.

Most often, the creation of an independent public administration has been driven by coalitions of elite politicians and public servants involved in wider efforts at institutional reform, in areas such as procurement and business regulation. But there is precedent for wider social mobilisation in cases where such narrow coalitions fail.

The United States offers the best studied example. There, between the mid-19th and early-20th centuries, patronage politics was a well-elaborated basis for party competition. Civil service reform would rely upon the mobilisation of a wide-range of societal actors.

The civil service reform movement centred upon a professional middle class, composed of clergyman, journalists, lawyers, academics, and others. It brought into its ambit a range of other actors stretching from populist farmers to liberal corporates. It mobilised across party lines, forging factions in both Republican and Democratic parties. It linked up with, was supported by, and was in support of institution-building public servants in the public administration.

By the early-20th century the spoils system was in retreat, broken. A newly independent public administration ushered in an era of robust programmatic politics and precipitously declining corruption.

South Africa’s anti-corruption movement will suffer for its neglect of such experiences. Of course, it will have to develop its own approach. In particular, an independent public administration will be distrusted, and so subject to continual threat, if it is not established around a new mandate that ensures social justice for all. DM


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