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.

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. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


ConCourt settles the law on the public protector and interim...

The Constitutional Court said it welcomed robust debate but criticised the populist rhetoric in the battle between Busisiwe Mkhwebane and Minister Pravin Gordhan

Small towns not ready for level 3

Officials in Beaufort West, which is on a route that links the Cape with the rest of the country, are worried relaxed lockdown regulations mean residents are now at risk of contracting Covid-19

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday