"One conclusion that seems to be common is that the ANC's deployment strategy systematically places loyalty ahead of merit and even of competence and is therefore a serious obstacle to efficient public service," HSRC researcher Modimowabarwa Kanyane said at a seminar in Pretoria.
Politically connected incompetent people were often deployed to public positions, which led to a demoralised public service.
"Incompetent and unqualified people are unable to deliver services efficiently and effectively. Competency and ethical standards are critical for an … effective public service."
He said managers with the relevant skills only constituted 0.4% of the country's public servants and the majority of them served in national departments.
"Skilled people are concentrated at the national and provincial levels but when you go deep into the municipalities, that are where we have a deficit of skills. So we don't have an even distribution of skills, even though it is in limited demand," Kanyane said.
"There is also a high level of turnover of middle and senior managers, due to stressful working conditions and the high demand for qualified professionals in the private sector and international opportunities for bright South Africans."
He said almost two-thirds of national departments did not have the basic capacity to investigate charges of corruption and bribery levelled at public servants.
"Officials who are found guilty generally receive very lenient punishments such as written warnings, and these matters are not reported to the police."
Kanyane said the country needed to accelerate its move towards a single public service – one that unified the three spheres of government.
"I think the aggressive, giant leap to move towards a single public service is a merited success, but I [also] think … we have not really found a way of regularising that and making it possible," he said.
"The advantages of a single public service bring with it coherent and integrated planning … to evaluate and monitor public service holistically. To me … a single public service is urgent so that we will be able to integrate our [public service] systems."
He said more research needed to be done into the number of municipalities and provinces, and how reducing them would benefit the public service sector.
Researcher Gregory Houston said it was unfair to place all the blame for incompetent public servants on the ANC.
"The ANC has acknowledged the flaws in their cadre policy. It also has to be said that not all people deployed by the ANC are incompetent," he said.
"In addition, the past 18 years have seen the transformation of the public service from an extensive and expensive bureaucracy to one which is more flexible … from a public service dominated by one race group to one in which all race groups are represented." – Sapa