Petty politics threatens civil service

A significant milestone in political tolerance and good governance took place last week when the Cabinet reappointed Dr Ayanda Ntsaluba, the international relations and cooperation director general, for another three-year term.

This flew in the face of efforts to get rid of him by labelling him a Congress of the People (Cope) supporter and contrasted with a decision by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), which suspended one of its members, Lizo Notununu, in KwaZulu-Natal this week because he had joined Cope.

It contrasted, too, with the ANC Youth League’s threat to rename a Munsieville public library—named after Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu—after he commented that he did not look forward to a government led by President Jacob Zuma.

Two weeks ago some staffers at the department we have always called “foreign affairs” picketed outside its office and demanded that Ntsaluba be removed. They complained of several things, including his “tyranny”—an allegation that could be investigated by the government—and that he was either a Cope sympathiser or close to people who were Cope members.

I hold no brief for Ntsaluba, but have every problem with a McCarthyist witch-hunt of civil servants. The Mail & Guardian has reported the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) branch leaders saying that they trusted Zuma and Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary general, not to allow Cope sympathisers into their ranks.

“Luthuli House, including national leadership of workers’ unions, will not and cannot be fooled to know where Dr Ntsaluba’s political trajectory points to and how harmful it could be to the new administration in general,” said Nehawu in a statement addressed to Zuma, Mantashe and International Relations Minister Maite Nkoane-Mashabane.

A few days after the story was published, the Cabinet reappointed him. This came amid a dilemma for the government on how to regulate the relationship between directors general and ministers.

Several directors general have been lost in the past few months, mainly because new ministers prefer to bring in their own trusted bureaucrats.

As Professor Tinyiko Maluleke pointed out last week, directors general are necessary for continuity. “That is the person with an institutional memory as far as the department is concerned. When you don’t have a DG it is worse than when you don’t have a minister.”

Ministers coordinate the making of policy and laws and oversee implementation by government departments, whereas directors general manage those departments.

To digress for a moment: some who have ascended to power with Zuma behave like an altogether new administration from a different political party.

No doubt there has been some kind of coup in the ANC and the government believes it can inspire confidence in itself by pronouncing that it will work differently and more efficiently.

But directors general are supposed to remain independent of political influence. They are permanent employees whose retention or otherwise should depend on the performance contracts they sign. That is why apartheid government functionaries are still in the system.

But there is a single-mindedness by some in the Zuma camp who want to airbrush history and rewrite the government’s work over the past 15 years.

In his first few speeches after the elections, Zuma was content to acknowledge only Nelson Mandela and Kgalema Motlanthe for work done by the government before him. But since the inauguration he has changed his tune, working hard to create an image of an all-embracing, reconciliation-driven leader in the mould of Madiba.

He retained some of Thabo Mbeki’s ministers, such as Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Lulu Xingwana and Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

And where he could not find Cabinet posts for Mbeki under­performers, such as Mandisi Mpahlwa and Charles Nqakula, he appointed them as advisers, which guarantees their high salaries and perks.

This, I think, is a bad decision—taxpayers’ money should not provide sheltered employment for politicians in what looks suspiciously like an effort to keep them close rather than risk losing them to the opposition.

But back to Ntsaluba. I do wonder how he will function in such a hostile environment. It is commendable that the government has not been held hostage by petty politicking.

Even so, the triumphalist tendency itself has not been defeated and it is the reason why service delivery is suffering in local government, as powermongers evoke Zuma’s name to settle scores with local rivals.

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane

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