Civil servants matter more than ministers

Forget the Cabinet appointments, shuffles and reshuffles – a cacophony of ministers will achieve little without a functional civil service.

Sanjaya Baru, former communications aide to India’s then prime minister Manmohan Singh, summed up the real purpose of Cabinet appointments: “Politics is about power and patronage, and ministerial positions are won not just on the basis of competence but also in recognition of a politician’s political clout or loyalty to the leader.”

Only a few of Singh’s ministers, Baru wrote in a biography of his former boss, were his own appointments. The rest were imposed on him by party leader Sonia Gandhi, or were determined in the so-called delicate balancing act that had to take place to appease the left, especially the communists, and to accommodate different factions of the Indian National Congress. Sound familiar?

As a result, Singh knew he couldn’t rely on his discordant Cabinet to achieve his vision. He couldn’t stand most of his ministers; they were not loyal to him. Instead, his administration depended mostly on bureaucrats who knew how to keep the Indian engine of state running.

Unless South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma focuses on repairing the civil service, his decade in the presidency will be remembered as a great era of idleness – or what academic Achille Mbembe calls “a permanent carnival”.

We will airbrush out the little good he attempted to do. We will choose to forget his peacemaking role in KwaZulu-Natal and Burundi; we will neglect his crucial role in the Groote Schuur Minute. Using Cabinet appointments to settle political scores and debts helps him to survive as leader, but such manoeuvres come at a high cost (literally and figuratively).

If every reshuffle triggers a change of civil service leadership in most departments, then under Zuma the public service will be even more volatile. Of the 65 men and women Zuma appointed to his national executive in 2009, only 10 still hold the same portfolios. Forty were either shuffled or dropped. Others died in office, resigned, or were promoted or demoted.

South Africa, unlike Japan, cannot afford so many changes in its political leadership. Japan changed its prime ministers and their Cabinets eight times in the past decade (including the intermittent two terms of Shinzo Abe). Except for Junichuri Kuizumi, none of them spent more than two years in office. But the state was held together by a stable civil service.

In South Africa, a change of government tends to destabilise the civil service. I’m not suggesting technocrats – who do not have a popular political mandate to formulate policy – should drive government. Instead politicians must appreciate the distinction between the government and the state, and understand the value of a nonpartisan civil service.

When Mbeki wrote to directors general (DGs) in 2004, demanding their loyalty, he understood the consequences of an unstable state. But he did little to shield top ­officials from shaky intraparty political transitions. And this was despite the amended Public Service Act that gave him the power to shake up the bureaucracy.

When the ANC fired Mbeki in 2008, Zuma promised that civil servants would not be affected by this change of guard. To his credit, he outlined his long-term view of a functional state in the National Development Plan (NDP), his legacy project. Yet the same NDP cautioned that “the public service needs to be immersed in the development agenda but insulated from undue political interference”.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy chairperson of the National Development Commission – the midwife of the NDP – is now the deputy president of the country. Let’s hope he will implement his own plan, and not be another Kgalema Motlanthe, the marginalised and ineffectual deputy.

The NDP gave an obfuscated warning against the consequences of cadre development: “At senior levels, reporting and recruitment structures have allowed for too much political interference in selecting and managing senior staff. The result has been unnecessary turbulence in senior posts, which has undermined the morale of public servants and citizens’ confidence in the state.”

The significance of the NDP’s warning became apparent when senior government managers actively and openly campaigned for the ruling party, in full party regalia, during the general election.

One of them even argued for the withdrawal of government advertising from this newspaper, simply because it commented on the ANC’s overweening power.

Clearly such civil servants have no sense of professional ethos or any notion of their constitutional obligation. They see their career path only through party patronage.

This was confirmed by a 2007 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development working paper on the public service. It showed that the career advancement of mid-level civil servants in South Africa “does depend on political considerations”.

Comrade civil servants must heed the NDP: “Where the public service is insufficiently insulated, standards can be undermined as public servants are recruited on the basis of political connections rather than skills and expertise, or access to state resources and services becomes defined by political affiliation rather than citizenship.”

The NDP emphasised that for South Africa to achieve its dream it must “build a professional public service that serves government, but is sufficiently autonomous to be insulated from political patronage … [with] clearer separation between the political principal and administrative head”.

The NDP proposed strengthening “the role of the Public Service Commission [PSC] in championing norms and standards, and monitoring recruitment processes”.

Coincidentally, the PSC’s latest report again highlighted the continued political interference in operational issues, and raised concerns about how changes in political leadership adversely affect the public service. “It is important to note that this challenge was ascribed to … the constant restructuring of departments whenever there are changes at the political and/or administrative levels,” said the report.

Despite Zuma’s promise to protect public servants from interfering politicians, most top civil servants bore the brunt of the Polokwane shake-up, barely a year after he took over the reins of government in 2009.

Senior officials in his office either resigned or were made uncomfortable. Frank Chikane, Mbeki’s former DG, was obviously not going to stay. His departure was followed by that of Trevor Fowler, the chief operating officer, who was technically the accounting officer. Policy guru Joel Netshitenzhe was “restructured” out of his job.

In other departments, more than half of the DGs were either shown the door, shuffled around or rendered redundant.

Most were seen as Mbeki loyalists – and not civil servants. Others were humiliated. One was violently removed from his office and another locked out. I know of one who was refused access to his office and denied permission to brief his subordinates. It was bitter, ugly and unnecessary.

The announcement of a new Cabinet this week must be a terrifying ordeal for some of our top civil servants. Unless there is decisive intervention, expect another exodus and another vicious reshuffle of DGs in the coming months.

Nor are heads of parastatals immune from this nasty political interference. The turnover of parastatal chief executives remains high, and these enterprises remain unstable and dysfunctional.

I once asked Zuma whether the solution was perhaps to follow the British model, adopted by some African countries, in which permanent secretaries are permanent and report to the secretary of the Cabinet. He was noncommittal.

The NDP suggests the creation “of an administrative head of the public service with responsibility for managing the career progression of heads of department”. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe couldn’t tell me what the solution was, save to say there needs to be debate.

Richard Baloyi, former public service and administration minister – whose ministry’s objective was to make the civil service effective – could not keep his DGs either. One top ANC official admitted to me in 2010 that an unstable bureaucracy was in effect paralysing the state’s ability to execute policy.

According to him, angry DGs and parastatal chief executives flock to Luthuli House to complain about the indignities they suffer at the hands of their ministers. I have seen a few DGs outside the offices of Mantashe and Julius Malema (then the leader of the ANC Youth League) – and they were there to grumble.

The ANC official said that, even though some DGs and chief executives were corrupt and lazy, most were committed and smarter than their political principals. They were frustrated by ministers who were only interested in meddling in policy execution and state contracts.

Some squabbles have weakened public institutions and compromised their independence. Zuma, who inherited some of these debilitated institutions, promised in 2009 to “strengthen the democratic institutions of state, and continually enhance their capacity to serve the people. We must safeguard the independence and integrity of those institutions tasked with the defence of democracy, and that must act as a check on the abuse of power.”

Yet many of these institutions have been further weakened on his watch.

Unless Zuma fixes the civil service, he will end his second term – if he survives politically until the end – as a failed president who managed only to save his own skin.

Moshoeshoe Monare is the deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Andile Lungisa: Early parole for the house of truth

Disgraced Nelson Mandela Bay councillor Andile Lungisa calls for a change of leadership in the ANC immediately after being released on parole

War of words at Zondo commission: ‘Grow up Mr Gordhan, don’t be cheeky’

The cross-examination of the public enterprises minister by Tom Moyane’s lawyers at the state capture inquiry went on well into overtime on Monday evening

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never meet

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

Zuma maintains his true colours at Zondo commission

The former president’s escapades at the commission of inquiry into state capture are a far cry from Nelson Mandela’s response when summonsed to testify in the high court

Gordhan tells Zondo how Moyane wanted to advance the objectives of state capture

The public enterprises minister is being cross-examined by Tom Moyane’s lawyers at the state capture inquiry, as both men seek to defend their reputations

General Council of the Bar slams Zuma Foundation

Another summons has been served on Jacob Zuma at his Nkandla residence, requiring the former president to appear before the Zondo Commission next year

Subscribers only

Dozens of birds and bats perish in extreme heat in...

In a single day, temperatures in northern KwaZulu-Natal climbed to a lethal 45°C, causing a mass die-off of birds and bats

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never...

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

More top stories

Eusebius McKaiser: Mpofu, Gordhan caught in the crosshairs

The lawyer failed to make his Indian racist argument and the politician refused to admit he had no direct evidence

Corruption forces health shake-up in Gauteng

Dr Thembi Mokgethi appointed as new health MEC as premier seeks to stop Covid-19 malfeasance

Public-private partnerships are key for Africa’s cocoa farmers

Value chain efficiency and partnerships can sustain the livelihoods of farmers of this historically underpriced crop

Battery acid, cassava sticks and clothes hangers: We must end...

COMMENT: The US’s global gag rule blocks funding to any foreign NGOS that perform abortions, except in very limited cases. The Biden-Harris administration must rescind it

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…