Editorial: ‘Political’ jobs still require scrutiny

Our report last week on the appointment of President Jacob Zuma’s 25-year-old daughter Thuthukile as chief of staff in the ministry of telecommunications has sparked a furious but mixed reaction. Some feel the appointment was unfair and unjustified; others believe our report was unfair and unjustified.

At least the arguments from both sides have triggered a vital debate about what distinguishes nepotism from discretionary appointments by members of the executive in their private offices – so-called “political appointments”. Strictly speaking, there is no such a thing as a political appointment. Even advisers, ministers and diplomats – appointed in terms of the president’s prerogative powers and not reviewable by the courts – are still expected to account for themselves by demonstrating competence in the exercise of public power. In the case of the appointment of staff by executive members in their private offices, such discretionary decisions do not translate into unaccounted-for power.

The creation of private offices and discretionary powers to make political appointments were never meant to provide grounds for those making the decisions to ignore basic professional requirements or the appointee’s level of competence. The rationale was to ensure the effective implementation of executive members’ political programmes, and to make such appointments cost-effective by tying the appointees’ period of service to the term of office of the executive member.

But these appointments – and the powers to appoint – are still subject to the Public Service Act and to the guidelines of the ministerial handbook. They are an administrative action. Both the ministerial handbook and the Act are silent about the procedures for appointment and the minimum requirements for the qualifications of staff hired in a private office. But this does not translate into carte blanche to hire politically connected but otherwise unsuitable people. In public office, every action and every appointment must be accounted for.

There has to be a clear distinction between jobs for pals and the discretionary exercise of public power. For this reason, most ministries advertise positions in the private office publicly, declaring up front the clear minimum requirements and the relevant experience needed for a candidate’s application to be successful. After all, such positions play essential roles in effective governance, and ministries have to make sure they have the best possible people to assist in the performance of official duties. Chief of staff is a position of seniority, and the incumbent earns a generous salary. In light of this, most ministries emphasise a need for “proven and extensive managerial experience”, knowledge of the relevant ministry’s operations and academic qualifications in public administration.

We do not doubt Thuthukile Zuma’s capabilities, diligence and intellect. But she is certainly not qualified or experienced enough for this top post. We agree that she shouldn’t be disadvantaged or unfairly discriminated against on the basis of her surname, but the converse should also apply: it should not be the only consideration. Telecommunications Minister Siyabonga Cwele, who appointed her, should have foreseen the public scrutiny it would attract and applied strict procedures to justify his decision. He needs to account for his appointment; he cannot hide behind the “political appointment” excuse.

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