Probe into ministry appointment clears Thuthukile Zuma

An investigation has found nothing wrong with Thuthukile Zuma’s appointment to a top ministry job, despite a previous report condemning these sorts of appointments.

The Mail & Guardian reported in July 2014 that Thuthukile Zuma, President Jacob Zuma’s daughter, was appointed as chief of staff to the ministry of telecommunications and postal services despite not having the recommended experience for the job. 

A complaint was made to the public protector, which was referred to the Public Services Commission (PSC) in August. The PSC finalised its investigation in October and informed the complainant that “the appointment of Ms Zuma was found to be in line with the prevailing prescripts”.

This seems to contradict a critical report by the PSC into the appointment of ministerial staff published in May, before the news of Zuma’s appointment broke.

The PSC recommends in the report that stringent selection processes should be followed.

“The chief of staff position is at a senior management services level, and therefore the selection processes should not be different from those utilised to select a chief director for a line function in a department. This means that candidates should be assessed/interviewed and should undergo a competency assessment in line with the requirements.”

Mixed messages
This contrasts with the culture in state ministries, where the idea of “political appointments” has often meant a hiring free-for-all, with little regard for the relevant legislation – or the experience of the individual.

“The question was raised by some respondents as to why there is a need for all these stringent processes for a position in a ‘political’ office,” the report noted dryly.

“The response given is that the chief of staff is one of the key people that are appointed to support the [minister] administratively and ensure co-ordination so that the [minister] is able to deliver on the mandate of the department.”

But the PSC appeared to make something of a U-turn on its rather brief report into Zuma’s daughter, noting to the complainant that her appointment was allowed “in terms of section nine of the Public Service Act, 1994,” and with chapter eight of the ministerial handbook.

But the law is clear that, even for political appointments, experience matters.

The Public Service Act and its relevant regulations make it clear that an “executive authority” such as a Cabinet minister may appoint ministerial staff to advise and help the minister without following the normal advertising or selection processes.

But chapter seven of the 2001 regulations states that, although these posts don’t need to follow a bias-free selection method, “the training, skills, competence and knowledge necessary to meet the inherent requirements of the post” must be considered.

Unclear legislation
Although Zuma has the requisite academic qualifications, with an honours degree in anthropology from the University of the Witwatersrand, her employment history is limited, meaning she is unlikely to meet the required “training, skills, competence and knowledge necessary” for the post of chief of staff.

The ministerial handbook provides no clear guidelines on hiring for such positions and the Public Service Act’s requirement of relevant experience appears to have been forgotten or minimised in this particular case.

But a government expert on hiring processes within the ministries, who wanted to remain anonymous given that the president’s daughter was involved, said the culture of hiring private staff had become distorted, the Mail and Guardian previously reported. 

He pointed out that politicians exploited the fact that neither the law nor the ministerial handbook prescribes strict procedures or minimum requirements for positions in the private offices of ministers.

Public money means public accountability
But this does not mean that the appointments are necessarily divorced from regulatory and other professional frameworks. The position, after all, is still paid for with public money.

In the case of the chief of staff, the incumbent is required to have extensive technical knowledge of the ministry, because it requires particular skills to maintain the interface between the ministry and the key industry players and stakeholders it has to deal with, the government expert said.

And, although the ministerial handbook is silent about the processes required to hire such a person, it is clear about their responsibilities. The person is expected to direct and manage the ministry strategically, in conjunction with the department. The handbook stipulates that he or she needs to “quality assure whatever emanates from the ministry”, including budgets and speeches.

The person must also reflect the attitude and posture of the “brand” of that ministry and minister.

Therefore, it requires someone with extensive ­knowledge of the public service, the specific ministry, budgeting, management, strategic liaison and more. Given these demands, extensive management experience is a prerequisite.

The PSC is a chapter 10 body tasked with ­investigating and evaluating the “organisation and administration of the public service”. But the body has struggled to get the government to pay heed to some of its reports and recommendations.

The PSC did not answer repeated requests for comment.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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