/ 10 June 2011

NPC: Diagnosis before treatment

A politicised public service, rampant corruption, an ailing healthcare system and continued divisions in society are among the biggest problems facing South Africa, according to the National Planning Commission.

The commission’s assessment is contained in a “diagnostic” document, intended to be the basis of a development plan that maps South Africa’s growth trajectory until 2030. Trevor Manuel, minister in the presidency and commission chair, released the document for public comment on Thursday.

Although it acknowledges progress since 1994, the report concedes frankly the government’s failure to address a number of problems and emphasises the trade-offs and ­concessions required from many political and economic interest groups before agreement can be reached on a development plan.

Other problems identified include substandard education, particularly for black children; infrastructural constraints; unsustainable, resource-intensive growth and distorted spatial development leading to economic marginalisation.

Examining the scourge of unemployment, the report argues that the highly segmented nature of South Africa’s labour market affords protection to a core of well-organised sectors and public servants, whereas a larger group of low-paid formal and informal workers remains on the periphery.

It notes that although labour regulations have had a positive effect there have been some “negative unintended consequences”. These include making it difficult “to sanction poor performers in the workplace, thereby limiting the incentive for firms to hire inexperienced workers”.

“Relatively high starting salaries in some sectors and the disincentive to hire inexperienced workers are at least part of the explanation for high youth unemployment,” it says.

The report recognises the many challenges facing the education system, including problems with curriculum design, language use and the efficacy of the government bureaucracy. “Without dismissing any of these factors, our conclusion is that the main problems lie in teacher performance and the quality of school leadership,” says the report.

Citing research by the Human Sciences Research Council, it notes that absenteeism among teachers, predominantly at African schools, has resulted in an average teaching rate of three-and-a-half hours a day, compared with six-and-a-half hours a day in former white schools. The cumulative difference was three years of schooling.

The report points to the significantly uneven investment and underinvestment in infrastructure in recent years across the logistics, information and communication technology and water and energy sectors. To address this, the report notes that higher levels of investment are needed — with an emphasis on bringing in more private money — as well as ­better “political understanding of the need for super-efficiency, especially at Transnet”.

The commission warns that, given its low savings rates and scarcity of capital, South Africa will have to make careful decisions about where to invest. “Making the correct decisions will require a level of institutional coordination between government and state-owned enterprises that has yet to be achieved,” it says.

The report is strongly critical of the ailing healthcare system, saying it has been undermined by poor policy decisions, institutional failures and a massive disease burden from infectious diseases such as HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and pneumonia, as well as violence, road accidents and lifestyle diseases such as diabetes.

Mistakes included poor human resource management, too much centralisation of basic institutional functions, a badly implemented strategy to shift the patient burden to primary healthcare facilities and failure to manage the relationship with the private sector.

The treatment of staff is highlighted as among the biggest problems resulting in a shortage of skilled personnel in the public health sector.

The commission also emphasises the need for a depoliticised public service. It says that a culture of “quick fixes” aimed at reforming visible examples of poor performance has resulted in greater instability in public institutions and that the interaction between the political and administrative elements of government is particularly problematic.

The level of political influence over the day-to-day operations of the public service often serves to undermine stability within government institutions, it says, noting: “It is critical for public servants to forge a collective professional identity and loyalty to the values of the Constitution rather than to any political party.”

The document singles out corruption as one of the most “striking breakdowns in accountability” that undermines citizens’ confidence in the democratic system. It points to research by the corruption-busting Special Investigating Unit indicating that overpayment and corruption in up to 25% of state procurement ­processes result in a loss of R30-billion a year.

Corruption occurred most often where there were systemic financial and procurement process weaknesses and acute skills shortages. Improving the capacity and functioning of the public service in financial systems and controls, information systems and management capability could prove “the single most effective way of deterring ­corruption”, it says.

Central to addressing many of these problems is to bridge the divisions that have become entrenched in the country’s social fabric, the commission argues. It notes that race remains a key dividing line, but so are gender and geographical location. And income inequality reinforces these differences.

Divisions fuel a cycle of mistrust and short-termism, undermining the trust necessary to “construct the long-term compacts required to deal with the underlying causes of inequality and exclusion”.

To address these divisions at a microlevel, the report points to families, faith and social activities as forces for driving social cohesion. It notes, however, that cohesion cannot be forged without addressing the role of women, who are still subject to “patriarchal practices” and violence that make them unable to engage adequately with the economy.