By Devi Pillay
The Commission of Inquiry into State Capture has proven that there is an urgent need to professionalise South Africa’s public administration. The commission’s recommendations provide a good starting point – but we need a comprehensive programme of reform.
[First published in Daily Maverick]
The State Capture Commission, in its reports and in more than 400 days of hearings, painted a bleak picture of the South African state and public service.
While we have seen pockets of excellence in some state entities, the overall evidence shows the public service to be highly politicised and largely dysfunctional, often struggling to deliver basic services. It is ill-equipped to play the role of advancing the progressive aspirations of the Constitution and the people, and to drive the development and redistribution we sorely need.
The public administration through the eyes of the Zondo Commission
Why is the state of SA’s public administration so dire?
The Zondo Commission shows us that State Capture has been facilitated by abuse of political control over appointment processes, and this in turn has been used to control and abuse procurement processes.
In South Africa, politicians hold largely unchecked powers over these processes, allowing them to place their political and personal allies in important administrative positions – compromising important checks and balances meant to protect the public administration from inappropriate political interference.
The commission dedicated many pages of its reports to various appointments and removals in key state-owned entities (SOEs) such as Eskom, Transnet, Denel and SARS; it found that the “strategic positioning” of complicit individuals in positions of responsibility was central to State Capture.
Senior leaders in government departments and state entities often did not have the expertise for the job – or showed scant commitment to the public mandate of the organisation.
The problem is not limited to appointment processes. The evidence heard by the commission included many examples of public servants facing pressure from their political principals to flout the rules or look the other way – and being sidelined or punished if they failed to do so. The reports highlight the ways in which corrupt politicians and officials used disciplinary processes, suspensions and dismissals to remove non-compliant employees and replace them with complicit – or at least more pliant – individuals.
Senior officials in government and SOEs faced minimal – if any – consequences for incompetence or unprofessional conduct; they became improperly involved in operational matters they were supposed to oversee and expected public servants to follow unlawful instructions.
Even those who ultimately refused to work with the Guptas were part of an environment that encouraged and expected them to conduct themselves unprofessionally, for example, by taking meetings with controversial businesspeople in their homes.
The report also found that one of the key features of the state that “allowed State Capture to take hold” was the failure to implement, effectively and fully, section 195 of the Constitution. Section 195 envisages a public administration that is professional, effective, impartial and developmentally directed.
The Commission also criticised the ANC’s practice of cadre deployment, though it did not make a particular finding linking cadre deployment to State Capture. The report stressed that the cadre deployment process, as currently practised, compromised the equality, fairness and transparency of appointment processes and could lead to deployees putting the interests of the party ahead of the interests of the people of South Africa.
Even if the worst excesses of State Capture were limited to certain “captured” SOEs, various institutions of the public administration were unable to identify or take action against corruption across a number of government entities for years. The best defence of some of the implicated persons appearing at the commission was that they were merely guilty of mismanagement, not corruption.
Many of these institutions have been destabilised by high turnover in key positions – another symptom of political interference.
Our public administration is hamstrung by undue political interference, incapacity, mismanagement and the almost total absence of accountability. Such a public administration is particularly vulnerable to corruption and State Capture. More fundamentally, it is incapable of delivering the services it is mandated to provide.
Where to for public administration?
It is clear that South Africa needs a public administration that is responsive to democratic direction and is professionally and developmentally effective. How do we get there? The Zondo Report makes a few important interventions, although they are somewhat uneven.
The commission recommends a complete overhaul of the appointments process for board members and senior executives of SOEs, although no similar reforms are proposed for the rest of the public administration. This recommendation emphasises the need to remove appointments and dismissals from undue political influence and seeks to remove the authority over making certain appointments from politicians.
The commission also found that it is unlawful for any appointing authority to consider the recommendations of a party deployment committee when making appointments. This similarly attempts to remove political considerations from appointments to the public administration.
However, we should not forget that the Constitution requires the public service to loyally execute the policies of the government of the day. The creation and staffing of this public service does not occur in a vacuum. In South Africa, this meant that the need to transform the existing state – and the inherited public service – was and is a legitimate and important political objective.
Political parties across the democratic world want to influence important appointments to ensure that the public service is committed to loyally executing their policies; “deployment” is in actuality a very common practice. This is a natural part of a multiparty, democratic system.
The problem is to reconcile this in practice with the establishment of a democratic, non-partisan and professional public service. Appointments must occur in the spirit of the Constitution and legislation, and not be driven by private interests.
Though the ANC’s cadre deployment policy may once have had noble intentions, the Zondo Commission has shown that its practice has contravened democratic and constitutional norms, and may have contributed to the current state of our public administration.
The commission also made recommendations to professionalise public procurement, including improving transparency, the creation of a profession for procurement practitioners, and various legislative and regulatory changes aimed at centralising and strengthening procurement processes.
These observations, findings and recommendations are scattered throughout the various parts of the report and do not come together in a complete, systematic analysis of the problem. Such an undertaking was not part of the commission’s mandate. But these three years of hearings, evidence and reports have shown us the extent of the problem in the public administration and state machinery.
We need a comprehensive programme of reform to ensure that our public administration is stable, capable and professional. Various government bodies and civil society organisations, including the Public Affairs Research Institute, have been engaging with this question and have formulated specific proposals for reform.
Interventions to limit political control of recruitment processes, over and above those recommended by Zondo, would be an important part of that programme. So, too, would other measures to insulate and protect the administration from undue political pressure, such as extending tenure for heads of departments.
The National Development Plan recommended the creation of an administrative head of the public service, a proposal that may – if carefully implemented – help stabilise the political-administrative interface across the public sector.
Many have argued for expanding the role of the Public Service Commission and bolstering its authority. Along the lines of Zondo’s recommendations for procurement practitioners, other key occupations in the public sector could be professionalised, such as human resource management and public finance management.
Formalising appointment processes and insulating them from political influence is only the first step. Recruitment processes and practices – as well as those concerning career progression and removal – should actively support the development of a cohort of dedicated civil servants who appreciate their responsibility to all in South Africa.
In 2021, the minister for public service and administration appointed a task team to assist in the finalisation of the “National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service”, which was highlighted by the President in his appearance at the commission and in his most recent State of the Nation Address.
Hopefully, the framework will lead to the implementation of real reforms for the professionalisation of SA’s public administration.