Defend Truth


Resetting South Africa’s public leadership culture is the only way out of our dysfunctional state of affairs


Mandla Lionel Isaacs is head of policy for Rise Mzansi.

China’s civil service has had a rigorous entry exam for over a thousand years. Countries like the US, France and South Korea have clear, merit and exam-based application systems to enter the public service. We have cadre deployment.

Rolling electricity blackouts are an ongoing reminder of systemic political dysfunction, but are only the tip of the iceberg (I refuse to use the euphemism “load shedding”). There are deeper issues we must confront if we are to build the South Africa we deserve.

We have settled into a culture of failure.

I need not spend much time describing the full list of failures, you know them very well: a slow-growing economy with catastrophically high unemployment, high and rising violent crime, endemic public corruption. The list goes on.

Beyond the real hardship these failures visit on us as citizens, what concerns me here is how much failure has become normal.

We wearily note the bad news each quarter when Stats SA reports jobs and growth numbers, and the news media duly invites economists to comment, who in turn duly analyse our uncompetitive economy.

We wearily check our phone apps to see whether the electricity will “only” be out for a manageable two to three hours today, or a highly disruptive 10-11 hours.

We note the latest brutal murder in the news, register sadness for the affected families and go on with our day.

We see the report saying that 80% of learners in schools cannot read for meaning, and we can hardly be shocked by that, as we’ve long since accepted our low and declining quality of basic education.

Read more in Daily Maverick: International study shows most Grade 4s in South Africa cannot read for meaning

What I would draw your attention to is this. Each of these ongoing failures is presided over by ministers, directors-general and senior public officials whose job description is, respectively: to grow the economy and employment; generate sufficient electricity reliably; keep the public safe; and educate children.

I put it to you that they no longer go to work expecting to fulfil their mandates. Many of these leaders clearly no longer care, but enjoy the power and trappings of public office, and the rest of us be damned.

Some are content merely to manage the dysfunction, which is how they now understand their job. Some do their best within the constraints of the broken systems in which they operate.

All no longer expect to win. We no longer expect to win.

In some countries, ministers of energy/public enterprises/electricity who can’t reliably provide electricity, police who don’t keep us safe, basic education who don’t provide basic education, would resign or be fired after several years of dismal outcomes. Not under ANC-governed South Africa of course.

How do we change this?

To become a successful country, we must first aspire to excellence. Excellence, defined as: to be very good, among the best in one’s class or category.

The most successful countries, businesses, teams, prize excellence. They strive for it. They measure themselves against it. They train to achieve it. They demand it.

There is a saying in business that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. In other words, strategy is important, but more important to an organisation are good habits and effective ways of working: meritocratic recruitment and promotion, performance culture, good teamwork and collaboration. An organisation with good culture will tend to achieve good results, an organisation with a bad culture will fail even if given a winning strategy.

Similarly, while South Africa needs a policy overhaul in several areas, we will continue to go nowhere slowly with our current public leadership culture.

To reset and rebuild towards the South Africa we deserve, a post-ANC government will need to build a culture of excellence in public leadership. This culture of excellence must consist of at least three main elements embedded through constant, diligent practice: leadership by example, outcomes focus, and meritocracy.

One of President Mandela’s most admirable leadership qualities was how deeply he understood the importance of leading by example. He said more about presidential ethics and the rule of law by subjecting himself to answer questions in court during the Louis Luyt matter than any speech ever could.

Leaders set the tone. If they role model professionalism, competence and ethical conduct, they will earn the admiration and emulation of the public servants they lead. Good leaders attract talent. Talented professionals flocked to be part of the Obama administration, passing up more lucrative jobs on Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

We will not solve our corruption problem without appointing leaders of unquestionable ethical conduct. When senior politicians and public servants — the highest-paid members of the public sector with a variety of perks — are seen to be enriching themselves, their families and close acquaintances, how can you expect frontline members of the public service earning a fraction of their salaries — such as police and immigration officers — not to also ask for “cold drinks” and outright bribes in the course of their work?

Second, successful cultures are outcome focused. What matters is getting the most important things done. In successful cultures, leaders are judged on their ability to achieve tangible results on the biggest issues.

Doing so requires ruthless performance focus. Managers in the private sector do not last long if they don’t deliver on the core business of their companies. Somehow in our public service, you can get by for years leading institutions which don’t deliver what they exist to deliver.

We need to adopt an approach which says “get it done or stand aside for someone else who will.” We need to appoint capable leaders, give them the resources, political backing and autonomy to do their jobs, and give them sufficient time — but not too much time — to show tangible progress in delivering expected outcomes.

If you deliver, you should be handsomely rewarded and given more time. Or promoted to a greater position of responsibility. If you don’t deliver, then it’s “thank you for your service.”

Finally, successful cultures are meritocratic: the best lead. The success of the East Asian developmental states rests on a culture in which competence is a given. China’s civil service has had a rigorous entry exam for over a thousand years. Countries like the USA, France and South Korea have clear, merit and exam-based application systems to enter the public service. We have cadre deployment.

Nepotism be thy game

South Africa does not lack for talent. We have many highly capable people throughout society. Our public sector chooses not to look for the best, instead drawing from the most politically connected, the most personally connected and the most loyal (and pliable) to the powers that be.

Not only does this logic increase the likelihood of incompetent and corrupt people being appointed to positions of authority, but it further drives talented people away. Many of our most accomplished and public-minded professionals choose to remain in the private sector knowing they will have predictable opportunities to advance rather than sit in obscurity in the public sector, reporting to some mediocre cadre appointed for his party-political manoeuvring.

Building the South Africa we deserve requires a change of political leadership. This leadership will need a new policy agenda, but crucially, it will need to change the prevailing culture of our public institutions.

South Africans have sadly become accustomed to mediocrity and incompetence as the norm from most public sector institutions, with those who can afford it fleeing to privately provided services, and the majority forced to make do.

South Africans deserve quality public services. The first step of reform will be to build a culture of excellence. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • manie_mulder says:

    Changing the culture of an organisation is an extremely difficult objective to achieve. Changing the culture of the South African public service would be an almost impossible task, unless a regime change happens. The new regime must then profess and implement a commitment to excellence with clear mechanisms of accountability. Sadly, our current system of proportional representation excludes personal accountability of elected/appointed representatives. We need an electoral system of voting for individuals, not voting for a political party.
    Public servants must be subjected to rigorous performance reviews focused on outcomes and results, at least annually. Performance failure must be addressed through corrective training/guidance and, where that fails, termination.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    An excellent article thanks the most pertinent questions. The root cause is that the ANC and it’s pernicious and corrosive traits of cadre deployment and BEE that values loyalty to the ANC over competence , integrity or even loyalty to our rainbow nation, is the root cause of all our troubles.

    Competence in go ernment ought to be the bedrock that allows society and well-being to flourish – we have allowed rather it and its attendant corruption to become the sole way to phenomenal wealth, much as in Russia – hence our costing up.

  • armour.richard says:

    Absolutely nailed it. Unless those in leadership do, no one else will. Oratory = nothing.

  • Change is good sa says:

    This article is inspiring. It is not new information, we all know this is the recipe for success. What I admire in Rise Mzansi is that competent and caring South Africans are getting their act together to make the change happen. South Africa needs it’s ‘Moon shot’ moment. All opposition parties and organisations need to put ego’s aside and need to collaborate and strategise to take the ANC out of Government once and for all.
    Then prosecute the perpetrators of our misery to reset the country on a prosperous journey of recovery.

    • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:


      It would be the way if it is not just wish thinking😞

  • Dou Pienaar says:

    Excellent article, wake up South Africa, we have many talented capable people. It is time we collectively ‘push back’ and stand together to take our country back from the criminals in charge of the public service, institutions and SOE’s.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    From News24
    A primary problem for the ANC:

    Whiskey and cigars: eThekwini ANC wants R16k-a-day exclusive club to ‘keep up’ with investors
    The story: Officials and ANC councillors in the eThekwini metro are pushing for the City to use a venue that charges up to R16 000 for a full day of meetings.

    What’s more: The ANC in eThekwini has approved the venue, and it is expected to be tabled before a council meeting.

    The reasoning: Officials say there is no other venue to hold these meetings, and they claim that the Durban International Convention Centre is never available when they ask to use it.

  • Rob Fisher says:

    Only 3 problems :
    Cadre deployment

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