Defend Truth


The very basics of a tolerable life – safety, light and water – are insecure because of institutional failures


Ivor Chipkin is the Executive Director of the New South Institute think tank, based in Johannesburg.

Institutional failures are the products of poor policies. The term ‘corruption’ often gets in the way of analysis and it obscures potential solutions. Not everything will be solved by arresting and convicting baddies and throwing away the keys to their cells.

This is an edited version of Ivor Chipkin’s address at the official launch of the New South Institute, formerly the Government and Public Policy think tank, on Thursday, 13 April 2023.

The change of name to New South Institute does not mark a shift of focus away from public policy and from working on the major public policy challenges facing South Africa. The opposite is true.

The name change marks a methodological shift. To understand what is at the bottom of the current malaise in South Africa, and to think of potential solutions, South Africa has to overcome its parochialism, to think itself in a wider, global context. There are other countries and societies confronting similar challenges of democracy, of economy, of inequality and of government.

In other words, the move to the New South Institute reflects a commitment to approach and explore South African challenges in the light of the experiences of other countries and especially those dealing with recent and complex transitions; from colonialism, from real-existing socialism and from military rule. We think there is something about transitions that gives these countries a certain comparable quality.

The idea is not so far-fetched. Today, for example, we are preoccupied with State Capture, understanding it, dealing with its effects and stopping it from happening again. The term frames how we understand the Zuma period and informs how we discuss what we need to overcome.

What is important to recall, though, is the provenance of the term. It comes to us through the work of several World Bank economists, studying the transition from socialism in Russia.

Without going into the merits of the argument, the point I want to emphasise here is that the term brings South Africa into unexpected company: not of other African countries, nor even of the postcolonial world, but, unexpectedly, of the post-socialist world, of former Soviet Republics, of Eastern Europe, and of the Balkans – more generally, of transitions ostensibly to democratic forms of government that have run aground.

I want to raise three points:

First, I want to say something about democracy in South Africa and globally.

Second, I want to link the state of democracy in South Africa and elsewhere to the quality of government.

And third, I want to talk about the importance of ideas, of argument and especially of ideas and argument about public policy.

1 The state of democracy

The Zondo Commission’s final report was especially damning about the state of democracy in South Africa. It found, for example, that Parliament, the institutional incarnation of the idea of democracy, had failed in its fundamental democratic role to hold the executive to account. The conduct of MPs, not just from the ruling party, moreover, no doubt reflected a wider political mood. Afrobarometer surveys have been finding that support for democracy in South Africa is weakening and acceptance of authoritarian alternatives growing.

The term ‘corruption’ comes easily to the tongue and to the pen because it helps us express our anger and frustration with what is going on. Yet it often gets in the way of analysis and it obscures potential solutions.

There can be no doubt that the extraordinary achievements of China under Communist Party rule are a significant factor. In South Africa, China is an ongoing object of fascination, especially for policymakers close to or part of the ANC.

This is a global trend, as authoritarian, or at least illiberal, models of government are gaining in prestige and popularity. Most dramatically, we see this in India, where under Prime Minister Modi, democracy is conflated with crude majoritarianism, with terrible consequences, for India’s Muslim population.

In South Africa, Jacob Zuma too complained about the constitutional set-up for constraining and even preventing majority rule.

2 Democracy and institutions

There are many reasons for the current democratic malaise. Growing disenchantment with democratic politics is certainly related to widening social and economic inequality between countries and within countries.

Indeed, in the work of the great Pierre Rosanvallon, the current state of inequality means the idea of democracy as a form of more or less egalitarian society has been shoved to the side. Democracy has become merely what it is for American political science, a set of rules and procedures for making decisions and legitimising power.

The current situation is thus marked by a profound contradiction. More and more countries resemble political democracies where there is political competition and there are elections. Fewer political democracies resemble social democracies, however, and in many cases, including South Africa, political democracy has gone hand-in-hand with widening inequality – that is, with the negation of democracy as a form of society based on equality.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Weak candidates make the cut in public service due to ‘exceptionally’ low requirements – report

Part of the problem lies in the way capitalist economies function today. Part of the problem also lies with the inability of democratic institutions to moderate the effects of economic inequality, or to stand down corporate elites.

In South Africa, the constitutional framework is more and more frequently blamed for the deficiencies of government, especially in dealing with the apartheid legacy.

Yet the crisis of inequality speaks of the crisis of government to regulate and tax the rich and to maintain and build a distributional regime that provides basic protections and services to working people, to the poor and to the middle classes: reliable electricity, running water, decent education, decent health, affordable transport, safe environments.

This brings us to my third point: the importance of ideas and of public policy.

3 The importance of public policy

South African public and private discussions are correctly worried about the depth and scale of government, institutional failure. The murder of Jeremy Gordin in his house in Parkview recently is but another reminder of the fear and danger that we experience daily, itself a consequence of the shocking state of policing in the country. Death and violence stalk our land. We are also largely in the dark and increasingly without water. The very basics of a tolerable life – safety, light and water – are insecure here.

Many of these crises are the result of institutional failures, which in turn are the products of poor policies. The term “corruption”, especially when it carries a heavy moral judgement, comes easily to the tongue and to the pen because it helps us express our anger and frustration with what is going on. Yet it often gets in the way of analysis and it obscures potential solutions. Not everything will be solved by arresting and convicting baddies and throwing away the keys to their cells.

More generally, institutional weaknesses are largely the consequence of four interrelated policy developments: the politicisation of administrations; indifference to skills, especially technical skills; managerialism; and the outsourcing of government work to private or proto-private businesses. All these developments are the result of policy choices taken over the past 30 years.

Therein lies a silver lining.

Concrete solutions to fundamental problems

In 2021, the National School of Government (NSG), with a mandate from the Department of Public Service and Administration, published a framework document for “professionalising” the public service. In September 2022, Cabinet approved the document, though it widened its scope to the whole “public sector”, including state-owned enterprises.

The framework document moots two critical principles: Public servants should be selected on the basis of merit; and public servants should be insulated better from inappropriate political interference.

Read more in Daily Maverick: A public service is only as strong as the people who work in it – recognise the Integrity Icons to squeeze out the bad

Where it falls down, however, is in its inadequate grounding of reform in the legal and political context in which it must make a difference. In the first place, the South African Constitution gives officials at provincial and local government level guaranteed autonomy from the national sphere of government. In other words, they are under no legal obligation to recruit from among NSG graduates.

Moreover, the highly decentralised form of government today means that local and regional entities have little incentive to defer to the professionalisation framework and many reasons not to.

There is another route to professionalisation.

The Constitution defines the public service as an organisation “with” public administration. Chapter 10 (S195) sets out the “basic values and principles governing public administration”, including that public administration must be governed by “democratic values” and must respect a whole range of “principles”: ethics, efficiency, transparency, impartiality and so on.

In other words, these principles must apply to all administrations across the state, including the public service, but also to local governments, courts and so on.

At the same time the Public Service Act (S3) makes the President and relevant ministers responsible for operational decisions in government departments and for recruitment and appointments.

Therein lies a major source of the systemic crisis in government. The Public Service Act (PSA) encourages political meddling in operational matters. Furthermore, by making a minister and/or the President responsible for recruitment and wider HR practices, the PSA makes it more likely that public servants will be appointed according to political principles rather than constitutional principles.

An agenda for reform should start with:

  1. The repeal or amendment of section 3(7) of the Public Service Act, to limit the discretion and role of ministers and the President both in a department’s operational matters and the recruitment of administrative and professional staff;
  2. Giving the power of recruitment to heads of departments as envisaged in the design of the Senior Management Service (SMS); and
  3. Setting and applying norms and principles for the recruitment and promotion of senior managers in respect of remuneration, merit, work-appropriate skills, ethics, performance and so on in new legislation – an Administrative Processes Act.

The NSI will shortly launch an agenda for public administration reform in South Africa.

The NSI, public policy and silver linings

Today’s launch is happening at the same time as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s investment conference. I am sure there will be a lot of talk about investments in energy and in infrastructure.

Yet the investment that South Africa needs is in public policy.

We need practical answers, grounded in great research and based on evidence, to major policy challenges. In South Africa we need to solve basic questions of institutional design, stabilising and professionalising administrations to make daily life more tolerable. We need great research and excellent, concrete proposals to crowd out the bad and terrible ones.

Like many places in the world, we need to solve regulatory and institutional challenges to close the distance between political democracy and social democracy, that is, to realign democracy as a political system with democracy as a certain kind of society: egalitarian and founded on a culture of human rights.

Of course, public policy is not enough. Change requires political will. But political will without great public policy is blind. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Errol Price says:

    Well, well ! Irony of ironies.
    Some thirty years ago a group of ” experts ” sat around a table in Kempton Park and drafted what they told us was unquestionably ” the Best Constitution in the World “.
    Mirabile Dictu !!!
    And the melody they sang then has been repeated regularly over the ensuing years.
    This marvellous document guaranteed to citizens ” socio-economic rights , housing , water, safe toilets and so on.
    As it turns out South Africa is the only industrialised country on the planet which cannot provide any of these things.
    ( most poorer countries also do a lot better )

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    Very refreshing – especially the suggestion that the heads of department should have greater powers to control their department and the ministers less.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted