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20 August 2017 23:00 (South Africa)
Opinionista Oscar van Heerden

Yes, Minister – our public servants caught in the crossfire

  • Oscar van Heerden
    Oscar-van-Heerden.jpg
    Oscar van Heerden

    Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is an active fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA) and is a trustee for the Kgalema Mothlante Foundation

We have many competent, committed and patriotic public servants. Are they still managing to keep a steady hand on the tiller? There has been much more to destabilise them and blow them off course in the most recent administration.

Our wrecking ball, which continues to shatter national assets including government institutions and national credibility (junk status), the governing party (infighting of top six) and indeed government departments and state owned enterprises (endless list), is at it again.

President Jacob Zuma’s hand in the current Eskom debacle and the return of Brian Molefe to Eskom is irrefutable in my mind. My logic goes something like this: The Eskom board decided in their wisdom that they are not accepting Brain Molefe’s resignation. They require him to return to his job as soon as possible. They however cannot make this decision without making the recommendation to and receiving the express support of Lynn Brown, Minister of Public Enterprises. For Minister Brown to back the decision requires the approval of her boss: The wrecking ball himself, President Jacob Zuma.

Just how much carnage can our State withstand?

In 2008 during those fateful eight days in September when the ANC NEC took the unprecedented decision to recall the President of the Republic (Thabo Mbeki), panic set in among many. It was not clear then whether the government would be able to absorb such a shock. Yet our big ship Mzansi managed to stay roughly on course.

The former President Kgalema Motlanthe stepped in as caretaker president. In his State of the Nation address in February 2009, he was at pains to mention how he appreciated the maturity and resilience of the public servants. He noted their ordeal and indicated: “That we were able five months ago to ensure a seamless transition and continuity in the systems of government is thanks to the maturity of our constitutional system, reflected in part in the co-operation of members of the Executive – old and new – and the steady hand of our public sector managers.”

Can the same still be said? We have many competent, commited and patriotic public servants. Are they still managing to keep a steady hand on the tiller? There has been much more to destabilise them and blow them off course in the most recent administration. Let’s recall the highlights.

First, National Treasury was set off on a roller coaster ride when Minister Nhlanhla Nene was abruptly replaced by Des van Rooyen. There were rumours that mass resignations could be expected from Treasury senior staff. Reason prevailed among our civil servant crew, and they did not have a mass exodus.

Second, at SARS, the wrecking ball needed to get his own man at the helm. As such, bogus allegations were concocted with regards to rogue intelligence units so as to facilitate a take-over at the leadership level at SARS. Instability, uncertainty, what’s going on, is what most employees at the tax revenue service must have been thinking.

Third, the State-owned Enterprises were next in line. Top managers are changed like the weather. Too numerous to mention.

Finally, last but not least, the various Cabinet reshuffles we have had to contend with.

We should not forget that changes at the top leadership in our ministries or departments result in changes at the lower levels too. Every time ministers and deputy ministers change, with it comes changes at the senior management positions. Every minister wants his or her choice of a director-general and that particular DG wants his/her own choices for deputy DGs. Sometimes this also extends to appointing preferred chief directors.

I draw on the infinite wisdom of Sir Humphrey when it comes to the public service, in order to make sense of it all. Allow me to introduce you to the cast of Yes, Minister, a British sitcom flighted by the BBC involving the public service of Her Majesty’s government.

The fictional characters in Yes, Minister would fit right in with the current Mzansi. The main characters are: (1) Right Honourable Jim Hacker, the Minister for the Department of Administrative Affairs (our equivalent to Department of Public Service and Administration – DPSA), (2) Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Senior Permanent Secretary (our equivalent to the DG) and (3) Bernard Woolley, the Senior Private Secretary to the Minister. These three men muddle their way through being loyal public servants. They watch and wait out the ever-changing cast of the political class in their government departments.

The following excerpt illustrates their wry and wily approach to government administration. Upon commenting about the role of senior managers in the public service, Sir Humphrey tells the minister what is expected of them: “Minister, the traditional allocation of executive responsibilities has always been so determined as to liberate the ministerial incumbent from the managerial minutiae by devolving the managerial functions to those whose experience and qualifications have better formed them for the performance of such humble offices, thereby releasing their political overlords for the more onerous duties and profound deliberations which are the inevitable concomitant of their exalted position.”

There are many Mzansi political overlords who would do well to be released of their onerous duties (which can be ably undertaken instead by the humble experienced and qualified public servants). Spare a thought for those professional civil servants trying to makes sense of and weather the blows of the wrecking ball. We should not take them for granted. If the psyche of the nation at large is such that they are out on the streets protesting and demanding ethical and moral leadership at the top, what then are we saying about the selfless commitment of so many public servants? Plodding along with diligence for the most part throughout government while this schizophrenic behaviour on the part of the wrecking ball continues unabated.

On top of all of this, the moral dimension also plagues our government. Again Yes Minister is rather instructive, as another excerpt illustrates:

Minister Hacker: Are you saying that winking at corruption is government policy?

Sir Humphrey: No, no, minister, it could never be government policy. That is unthinkable! Only government practice.

Morale must be at an all-time low among our public servants, because, you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t, is the order of the day.

In another of the episodes, Bernard, in addressing the imperatives for all public servants, says, “If it’s our job to carry out government policies, shouldn’t we believe in them?” To which Sir Humphrey responds, “Oh, what an extraordinary idea! I have served 11 governments in the past 30 years. If I’d believed in all their policies, I’d have been passionately commited to keeping out of the Common Market, and passionately commited to joining it. I’d have been utterly convinced of the rightness of nationalising steel and of denationalising it and renationalising it. Capital Punishment? I’d have been a fervent retentionist and an ardent abolitionist. I’d have been a Keynesian and a Friedmanite, a grammar school preserver and destroyer, a nationalisation freak and a privatisation maniac, but above all, I would have been a stark staring raving schizophrenic!”

Let’s hope such cynicism has not yet found expression by our own public servants and that such policy uncertainties don’t go unnoticed. As leadership is chopped and changed, confusion prevails. While the National Development Programme (NDP) remains a guiding document, these continuous disruptions at the top must be impacting on its implementation.

Change is here, so professional public servants stand to attention in the foyer of the new building to welcome the new Minister Gigaba at the Public Enterprises Department. Furious handshakes and broad smile are the order of the day. The new broom sweeps clean, resulting in a series of changes: changes at the top management, new policy imperatives, changes in ethos and approach, structural changes to the minister’s office and so much more. Then the same professional public servants stand to attention, ready again to receive the new Minister Gigaba in the foyer at the Home Affairs office. There is a repeat of all the changes above. How utterly painful.

It is not long before we again welcome Minister Gigaba, this time in the foyer of National Treasury. The poor public servants can hardly keep track with all these changes. All in a period of less than eight years. Heads must be spinning, for all those many public servants in all three of these departments. I’m certain that even Malusi, competent as he is, must at times refer to a previous department’s strategy when in fact he is addressing the current department’s staff members. I can imagine him confidently exclaiming: “I want us to take control of the various border control ports as a matter of urgency” (waving his finger about). Only he is then tapped on the shoulder by his most trusted adviser, Chris Malekane, who says: “Um, minister, we’re talking about macroeconomic approaches at National Treasury.”

Oh yes right, where was I…”.

Our current situation is untenable. The demands we place on our public servants to weather the storm while a leadership circus continues are no longer tenable. They are being “blown hither and thither in a wayward course, to the very verge of despair”, to quote Bertrand Russell.

So, I turn once again to Yes, Minister for solace. When Sir Humphrey is asked how to guide ministers or prime ministers to making the right decisions, he said, “If you want to be really sure that the minister or prime minister accepts it, you must say the decision is ‘courageous’.”

To which Bernard responds, “And that’s worse than controversial?”

Sir Humphrey replies, “Controversial only means ‘this will lose you votes’. ‘Courageous’ means ‘this will lose you the election’.”

It cannot continue, Mr Wrecking Ball, President Zuma. It has to stop or else we will soon have a state with a collapsed governing party and a public service in ruin. The final line of defence, in any government, as far as I’m concerned, is the Public Service. Paying lip service to these professionals and messing them around like this will be at your own peril. Or let me rather say, your leadership changes are most ‘courageous’, Mr President. DM

  • Oscar van Heerden
    Oscar-van-Heerden.jpg
    Oscar van Heerden

    Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is an active fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA) and is a trustee for the Kgalema Mothlante Foundation

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