Having been in executive office since 2006, I have signed my fair share of public pledges.
Pledges commit signatories to various forms of ethical behaviour and epitomise the South African approach to addressing challenges. Corruption in particular.
Pledges are normally “launched” at formal events with a series of speeches (culminating in a “keynote address”), replete with musical items and other symbolic activities.
Because symbolism plays an important role in public life, I tend to go with the flow, with as much sincerity and enthusiasm as I can muster.
But now and again, pledge-signing can actually be a diversion from where our focus should be if we are serious about addressing a crisis. Pledges make us think we have actually “done something”, when we have no idea what we actually should be doing. Or when it is too difficult to do what needs to be done.
I expected this would be the situation when I agreed to deliver the keynote address at the pledge-signing ceremony organised by the Public Service Commission (PSC) last week. The purpose of the pledge was to enjoin public servants “to embrace and live by constitutional values and principles”.
Of course, I support this goal 100%. Indeed, it is the PSC’s function to achieve this. It has substantial powers to do so by “investigating, monitoring, evaluating, proposing measures, issuing directives, advising and reporting” on a range of matters relating to the public service including “staff recruitment, transfers, promotions, dismissals and personnel practices”.
These are real powers. So the obvious question to be asking right now is: What was the PSC doing while so many state institutions were being “captured” by members of a criminal syndicate deployed into strategic positions, so that they could loot public funds?Was the PSC asleep on the job? Or has it been captured too?
Having waited in vain for a journalist to ask this question, I was keen to do so myself. The invitation to launch the “Pledge to embrace and live by the Constitutional Values and Principles” offered me the opportunity.
As I looked through the programme, I was pleased to see I would be able to direct my questions to the head honcho himself, Dovhani Mamphiswana, the PSC’s Director-General. He was due to “set the scene” at the event, by speaking about the role of the PSC and the purpose of the launch.
On arrival, I learnt (unsurprisingly) that he would no longer attend. His speaking slot was filled by the Eastern Cape Public Service Commissioner, Singata Mafanya, while the deputy Director-General, Irene Mathanjwa, was billed to “elaborate” on the meaning of the constitutional values and principles in everyday activity.
Mafanya gave a motherhood-and-apple-pie speech about the importance of eradicating corruption, ending with the impassioned question:“Why are some officials so corrupt?”
That gave me the opening I needed. When my speaking turn arrived, I offered to answer that question before posing a few of my own.
I said corruption was rife, not only because of a general lack of accountability, but because for at least 10 years, officials have been hand-picked for “deployment” into senior positions in the public service, with the express mandate of advancing corruption.
This was not an accident of history. Ethical erosion had become inevitable as the ruling party sought to control every state institution, in pursuit of the “National Democratic Revolution” which rejects the notion of an independent, professional public service.
Arguably the most damaging constitutional amendment in our brief democratic history so far, happened even before the final constitution was adopted in 1996. Soon after the interim constitution of 1994, the ANC decided to remove the requirement that an expert, independent PSC should appoint senior civil servants on the basis of capacity to get the job done.
With this crucial idea removed from the final Constitution, the ANC was free to start its cadre deployment policy, eroding the constitutionally guaranteed independence of state institutions, and entrenching a corrupt network, behind a fig-leaf of black economic empowerment. These “cadres” soon became complicit in a criminal mafia of politically connected individuals, and connived either to lure honest officials into compromising deals, or remove them from their jobs. Before long, joining the network of corruption became necessary to retain your position.
This perversion of our constitutional values and principles should surely have been prevented if the PSC had been doing its job?Was it using its impressive array of powers to identify what was happening, expose the corrupt, and defend the ethical officials?
If it wasn’t, no amount of “pledges” can counteract the incentives that entice officials into the spider web of corruption. Ensuring that everyone in the network is criminally compromised is the best way for the mafia dons to exercise control. Everyone must “have something” on everyone else.
This, I argued, was the brief explanation of why so many state institutions have become so corrupted.
Having answered Mafanya’s question, I asked my own: What (apart from launching pledges) has the PSC being doing about it? And how had the PSC sought to promote the proposals of the National Development Plan, to staff the state with competent, independent civil servants?
In particular, I wanted to know what the PSC had done to defend honest public servants from political persecution, mentioning (as an example) the treatment of Phumla Williams by the former, disgraced, Communications Minister and Gupta pawn, Faith Muthambi.
I waited for an answer in vain, until the Deputy Director-General, Mathanjwa, sought to answer one of my questions — what the PSC was doing to protect honest civil servants facing political persecution.
She explained that, when there was a stand-off between a Minister and a competent senior official, the PSC would sometimes recommend the redeployment of the official to another department, in order to retain their services.
It was clear that my question hadn’t “landed”, so to speak. So I gave up.
The PSC has all the symbolic paraphernalia required of a state institution — a vision statement, a mission statement, glossy pamphlets, signed pledges, and a raft of senior officials in highly paid positions.
But this has clearly not enabled the PSC to translate its mandate into impactful action to ensure South Africa has the independent, professional public service we need to build a capable state.
Summits and pledges, however well-meant and lofty, are not going to take us much closer to this goal.
It is crucial for us to return to the intention of the constitutional negotiations of the early 1990s and establish an independent, expert PSC that can appoint senior public servants on the basis of their skill and capacity, in order to end the corrupt and corrosive cadre deployment policy, once and for all. DM