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The destruction of state institutions is the road to ruin: We must rebuild a strong, motivated and depoliticised civil service

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Nontobeko Hlela worked as a political science lecturer at the then University of Durban-Westville, as an intelligence officer at the then SASS, and as the First Secretary: Political at the High Commission of South Africa in Nairobi from 2010 to 2014. She currently works as a Researcher for the South African office of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, a Global South think-tank with offices in Johannesburg, São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Delhi.

We say we want a functioning state, a responsive state, a developmental state, yet we allow the people, systems, and institutions that should guide this process to be broken. How do we expect to have a developmental state in practice, and not just as a cheap slogan, when we do not have a well-oiled, professional and competent civil service?

Across the world, thriving societies have strong institutions, institutions that outlast political leaders and governments. If the ANC was committed to ensuring that South Africa has a strong state, a flourishing democracy and government that respects its people and meets their needs, each administration would focus on ensuring that it strengthens and develops key institutions.

But to a large extent, the ANC has failed to make the transition from a national liberation movement to a political party in a democracy. It continues to see itself as the epicentre of progressive change. For some in the ANC, although of course not the constitutionalists, this means that independent institutions are a limit to the party’s power, a limit to be overcome. This results in institutions either not being taken seriously as a democratic necessity, or actively seen as a hindrance to the power of the party.

The concerted effort to break down institutions during the previous administration — from the police, to SAA, SARS, Prasa, Eskom and much more — was not a one-off aberration. Now, as the factional battles escalate ahead of the next internal ANC election in December 2022, another round of deliberate undermining of our institutions has started, this time directed at the courts and the Constitution.

When a political leader who aspires to be a candidate for the president of their party begins their campaign with an attack on our key democratic institutions that does not bode well. Already the factional tensions with the party, which play out through our severely damaged institutions, mean that incoming leaders are not afforded any breathing room to implement their agenda when they ascend to the highest office in the country.

Any new leader will have to fight on all fronts. Even the best-intentioned leader will have to fight the knives being hurled at them by their own party members while taking on the challenge of governance, rebuilding a stagnant economy, trying to correct the state machinery, dealing with a demagogic opposition and a whole host of foreign policy issues.

If we are to have any chance of restoring our institutions, and rebuilding the integrity and capacity of the state, we will have to develop a new kind of politics, one rooted in servant leadership, in integrity and vision. Getting there is not just a matter of having better leaders. It is also a matter of building and sustaining a professional civil service.

The media often does a good job of holding politicians to account. It often does a poor job, though, when it comes to carefully examining how to build a professional civil service that is highly competent and operates with integrity. A central problem is that the men and women who work in the public sector are continuously disparaged as if the rot is uniform.

There are countless people in the public sector who love their jobs. There are many people who are qualified, competent, and passionate to do the work that they are paid to do, and just want to be allowed to do that work. However, the politics and shenanigans of the ones who are entrusted with leading them very often make this nigh on impossible.

These men and women get dragged into situations that have nothing to do with their work. They get shunted from pillar to post. They get stunted in their attempts to do their work, and often end up being pushed out of the civil service altogether. South Africa is poorer and worse off for this. But those who have remained, often at great personal cost, are a huge asset to our society and will be an invaluable asset to a government that is actually committed to building a functional and decent society.

We need these people, and we need to support and affirm them. We need to build more committed public servants. We should be putting our brightest and most able in the public service. It should be an honour to serve your country and your people.

But too often these days civil servants are even reluctant to let people know that they work for the state because this has become synonymous with ill-discipline, laziness, incompetence, rudeness, self-gratuitousness, and a host of other horrible things. Of course, all of these ills do fester in the public service, but as we all know there is also significant rot in the private sector. From Steinhoff to Tongaat Hulett, Bain, KPMG, and McKinsey there has been extensive corruption in the private sector.

For many people, trying to get help from an internet service provider is every bit as difficult as trying to get help from their municipality.

We have a general problem of people across the state and the private sector only being concerned for their own short-term interests. We have a general challenge of building a shared vision for a better future for this country and its people.

But just as everyone working in the private sector is not responsible for the crimes of Steinhoff or Bain, the majority of public servants are ordinary people who want to be allowed to do their work. They are South Africans who want things to run and work properly and smoothly, and who want to do their part in ensuring this. They are people who want their children to grow up in a thriving society where they can build futures for themselves and their families to come.

But we cannot build a professional civil service when our public servants are constantly being pitted against each other because the ever-changing pool of political principals doesn’t want this or that person in a position. A civil servant may well be qualified for their job, which they may well have been doing for years, but they can be marginalised in their jobs, or pushed out altogether, because they are not seen to be aligned to this or that personality or faction. The pliable are then elevated at the expense of principle, expertise, morale and good governance.

Under the Mbeki administration, the public service was becoming professionalised. Of course, there were problems, as there will always be. However, the public service was mostly stable, with accounting officers being predominantly competent, hard-working, and good at their jobs.

Take for instance the former DG of Foreign Affairs, now Dirco, Dr Ayanda Ntsaluba who served as DG from 2003–2011. And my former DG, Hilton (Tim) Dennis who was the DG of the South African Secret Service (now SSA-Foreign Branch) from 1999-2009.

The presence of competent and committed accounting officers did not only let the organisations they ran have stability, it also allowed the relationship between the accounting officers to grow and develop, enabling better relationships and greater coordination within the government’s cluster system. It created stability of leadership and vision and for processes to become entrenched and policies to be implemented.

Of course, a figure like Tim Dennis in the South African Secret Service (Sass) had his detractors. But now these same people admit that they miss him. Why? Because things worked. People knew what was expected of them. There were clear guidelines on how to meet those expectations. There were clear reporting lines and people were held accountable.

Since 2009, the intelligence services have had six directors-general, with the incumbent acting since 2021. The person before him acted for three years. There is also a high turnover of directors for the domestic and foreign branch. The “Hollywood” syndrome in the public service, where most senior people are acting in their positions, is a whole other can of worms that creates another set of problems leading to stagnation.

The Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture heard disheartening testimony about what has become of our state institutions, including the intelligence services. The July riots have largely, rightly or wrongly, been blamed on a failure of intelligence.

Yet, we fail to see the connection between the dismantling of systems and institutions, the austerity-driven retrenchments and reductions in staff numbers (couched as moratoriums in hiring), the politicisation of the appointments that do occur, and the current state of our civil service. We say we want a functioning state, a responsive state, a developmental state, yet we allow the people, systems, and institutions that should guide this process to be broken.

How do we expect to have a developmental state in practice, and not just as a cheap slogan, when we do not have a well-oiled, professional, and competent civil service? If we want to build a civil service that can build the institutions that can sustain our democracy and make it work for our people we need to be clear about the changes that are urgently required.

We need to stop misusing government departments for political purposes instead of for the good of South Africans. We need to stop putting political heads in positions where they have no interest or expertise, or even any interest to learn or surround themselves with able people. We need to stop cutting the budgets for government departments. And we need to stop the situation where all that civil servants hear in the public sphere is how useless, unprofessional, and uneducated they are, and how they are just a drain on the system.

We can only hope that the newly minted Minister in the Presidency: State Security, Mondli Gungubele, will have the courage to appoint competent people — people who know and understand intelligence and its processes. We need hard-working people with vision, and above all else, a real love for South Africa. Crucially, we need people who will not allow the intelligence services to be used for factional political battles but will hold the line and rebuild the intelligence services and create stronger institutions that will withstand the test of time in serving, advancing, and protecting South Africa’s interests.

Our politicians need to start asking themselves what country they want to govern and bequeath to future generations.

As South Africans, we need to stop the enthralment with big personalities and creating unquestioning cults around people. We need to start asking ourselves what this country means to us and what we are willing to do to ensure that we live in a country that we and our children will be proud to call home. DM

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  • Well said. And also, we need to stop the revolving door that DG’s seem to find in front of them in just about every department, when a new Minister arrives. The DG should be the (principal) holder of institutional knowledge of the department, be a subject-matter expert and also involved in the selection and training of his or her successor over a suitable time-frame. He or she should therefore have a departmental life long beyond the whims of politically deployed bosses. I would suggest that before a DG is asked to move on, the President, personally. should have to be briefed on the motivation, interview both the incumbent and the proposed replacement, and have the final say.

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