Lindi Johnson* had a good run as a director general. She worked for 10 years under a minister who trusted her and, when her contract came to an end, she decided to move on.
“I had to make a decision whether I wanted to be a public servant for the rest of my life or have a chance at an alternative career,” she said. “I had a very good run. I didn’t have the energy to start learning how to work with a new minister.”
Although South Africa has a depoliticised civil service in theory, in practice it’s very difficult for politically deployed ministers to trust their top bureaucrat if they don’t trust their values. Ministers often bring in their own directors general (DGs), as was the case with Johnson, but their contracts do not run in parallel.
“The reality is that the public service is politicised at least three or four layers down and often further,” said Johnson.
“The ANC is ridden by factions, so one faction feels they have got the wrong person and they don’t want them. A minister might also take a dislike to a DG, find them uppity or not like the working relationship. It is quite tricky.”
Last port of call
Then there are ministers who want to run the affairs of the department, which can lead to clashes as the DG is the final accounting officer, and many run into trouble when they refuse to sign problematic contracts.
Fortunately for Johnson, her minister believed in a separation of roles. “He said: you don’t try to do politics; you run the department.”
When he left, the new minister asked her to stay but she decided it was time to go. In fact, she would have been happy to mimic the United States model and have her term linked to the minister who chose her – it would have made things easier all round.
“My contract expired three or four months after he left, which was very good, as I had a chance to hand over to the new minister and help him go through a process of recruiting a new DG,” she said.
It doesn’t always work out so smoothly, though, as another former DG, John Dlamini*, can attest.
Trumped up charges
After working with three ministers in various roles as a bureaucrat, Dlamini had a falling out with a minister who began trumping up charges to remove him from office, he said.
“I was charged for all sorts of things but I knew we had a fall-out within the first two weeks. So I fought till the end, till I won the case and got paid out. It was a difficult CCMA [Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration] process as opposed as to a golden handshake … I spent a lot of money on lawyers.”
In South Africa, when a minister gets moved from a department, his or her entire ministry, including the spokespeople and chief of staff, moves with the minister. But the department remains untouched, including the director general.
“My view is you should accept that your DGs are partly political so you should time their contracts to end with [those of] the ministers, so the new minister is not saddled with a DG,” said Johnson, who has seen bad situations develop in other departments.
Dlamini said it was “fundamentally about the relationship”.
“If someone is uncomfortable with working with another minister’s DG, there is a problem. I said to my last minister: ‘Clearly you don’t like me; stop finding allegations to get rid of me. Pay me out; I’ll go.’
“He said it was nothing personal but I knew it wasn’t true.”
Allegations of mismanagement
Dlamini was reportedly thrown out over allegations of mismanagement. But it’s difficult to know what is the truth. As Johnson says, she has seen all sorts of accusations flung at DGs to get them out of their positions.
Linked terms would work if ministers were left to finish their five-year term. But in a Cabinet that has been changed as often as President Jacob Zuma’s, ministers can last for little more than a few months and constant reshuffles would mean the DG would be reshuffled too if the terms were linked.
“How do you ensure stability?” Dlamini asked.
Johnson said that the Indian model, which is similar to what the National Development Plan recommends for South Africa, could be the answer: a balance between professional civil servants and allowing ministers to make their own choices.
“We should stop what we’re doing at the moment. There is a massive turnover and incoming ministers pull from wherever they want instead of drawing from a pool of experienced cadres,” said Johnson.
Both DGs have gone on to successful careers in consulting.
* Not their real names.