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Senior bureaucrats should act like the ‘Talented Tenth’, not politicians’ ball boys

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Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa. He writes here in his personal capacity.

As we transit through the first quarter of a century of the democratic experiment called the New South Africa, there is no better time than now to call for the rise of what WEB du Bois called the Talented Tenth.

The Talented Tenth are men and women of courage and ideas; an advanced detachment in the effort to build a national democratic society. We also call them the mandarins, an ancient Chinese proxy for meritocratic leadership popularised in the West by Simone de Beauvoir. In Professor Thandika Mkandawire’s language, these are senior public servants who reign while politicians rule.

They are men and women who do not fantasise about the National Democratic Revolution because their daily deeds and future plans are a permanent revolutionary act meant to change the material conditions of the majority.

They proudly serve as executors, builders, innovators, thinkers, planners, poets and seers; wholesome individuals with rare characteristics of selfless service to the people, notwithstanding the toxic political-administrative interface. In order words, state mandarins must refuse to be ball boys of politicians. They must exercise agency as top managers fully empowered by the laws of the land.

And so, no longer shall development happen without the participation of the people and prudent deployment of finite public resources — the Talented Tenth source their legitimacy from this undertaking.

They are the living embodiment of the decolonial ethics of liberation and servant leadership. They know full well that democracy is not liberation but a step towards it as the struggle for spatial justice, economic, cultural and epistemic freedom continues.

The Talented Tenth are men and women who change history, not just events. They live in the future they chose — a liberated SA where the dignity of the African majority is fully restored, a nation united and gender and racial prejudice eliminated.

They are men and women of rigour and conviction, married to ideas and excellence in executing the delivery of public services.

They are undeterred by a derision that casts them as unimaginative. Instead, they source courage from blunt public commentary from the mainstream and social media battalion, like my varsity lecturer, Professor Jonathan Jansen, who a few months ago tweeted that government people are abusing public platforms to speak about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), something they have limited appreciation of. Coincidentally, a DA politician tweeted a similar message on the same day.

To this, the mandarins contemplate, is it necessarily out of step for government officials to overplay the 4IR card in their public engagements? The true mandarins will negate this view and affirm the need to engage earnestly about 4IR as it can be a lever of the renaissance we are propagating.

They proceed to consider the options:

  • If we are sincere about our understanding of 4IR and its implications, the taste in the pudding will be a proportional increase in the resources for skills development that will equip South Africans to take full advantage of 4IR opportunities;

  • The public should expect to see a qualitative increase in the resources spent on research and development (R&D) so as to put the country on the cusp of cutting-edge technology, thus taking full socioeconomic advantage of 4IR;

  • The enabling environment and the regulatory framework will need to change faster to support the growth of technology-enabled sectors of the economy. For example, radio frequency spectrum will have to be released quicker and data costs must fall faster;

  • One would expect to see innovation around programmes supporting small, medium and micro enterprises, accompanied by necessary tax or other incentives that aid start-ups as well as small and medium-sized technology companies to thrive;

  • The rate of technological transfer will have to be faster and more targeted than it is now. This should be balanced with faster advancements in local content as a spin-off of R&D and skills development; and

  • Efforts to digitise government services should move quicker in order to deliver services smarter and faster. The home affairs department’s new automation system is an example of what thinking outside the box can do for service delivery. Trade and industry is now processing company (and tax) registrations within 48 hours. However, transport still uses outdated technology to print driver’s licences.

There are great opportunities for SA to exploit 4IR opportunities in many sectors of the economy. For example, technology can be optimised to do mining efficiently without replacing labour.

Our small traders can be liberated from the risks of carrying cash and making manual orders if they can access affordable, hand-held devices and WiFi to process transactions.

What does this have to do with the Talented Tenth, you may ask? It has everything to do with their imagination, responsiveness and creativity.

Deploying technology to optimise service delivery and to make mining more efficient, for example, requires smart regulatory and policy frameworks. It needs public servants who can effectively mobilise evidence to motivate for regulatory reforms. The same evidence should be used to spatially reference interventions where they are needed the most, not where it is convenient to do so (because it is easier to travel and find overnight accommodation there).

The fourth industrial revolution, like many other current endeavours of public policy, will test the ability of senior bureaucrats to respond to the rapidly changing socioeconomic and political environment. With technology, bills of quantities can be developed more accurately and construction projects can be managed using real-time data.

The advanced detachment in the bureaucracy should see these opportunities and exploit them to the fullest in order to serve South Africans better.

Will the Talented Tenth raise their hands and rescue the national mood from this dilapidating state of cynicism and low expectations? Will they redeem the public service from the caricature of an indifferent captain of the Costa Concordia ready to jump ship while risking the lives of fellow countrymen?

The era of relegating senior bureaucrats as junior partners of the developmental state is fading, just like analogue technology. It is time they rise like the mandarins in post-World War II Europe and China.

Finally, as KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala challenged us in his state of the province address, it is time for the mandarins to rise to the occasion by documenting and institutionalising integrated service delivery models like Operation Sukuma Sakhe, which has been replicated in provinces like Gauteng (as Nthirisano) and Mpumalanga (as Operation Sukuma Sisebete).

This best-practice model has already been studied and adopted by the UNAids which has called for the model’s replication in the region. DM

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