On December 9 last year South Africa woke up to the news of a new finance minister — he lasted four days. The term “state capture” moved from being newsroom speak to the substance of dinnertime conversation.
A broad range of actors from opposition parties, the ruling party, civil society and business voiced concerns that managers had been placed in state organisations with direct links to interests that sought to use state resources to serve private ends.
To the extent that the term “state capture” is useful, it should focus our minds less on the characters of the sagas in the treasury and National Prosecuting Authority and more on the nature of our state: that it’s arguably too open to capture; that it is not insulated from narrow political and private interests.
To fight back against corruption in its most pernicious forms a programme for state reform is needed that begins to build the autonomy of the public service.
The extent to which a state bureaucracy is shielded from these interests determines not only the extent of corruption in a country but also its development prospects.
Where corruption is systemic in an organisation (in some departments and municipalities it is; in others, it is not), it can focus the energy of state managers on fighting factional battles for the control of state resources. Or on fighting against these interests to protect the space to simply do their jobs. It can paralyse decision-making and routine departmental work.
A typical inner dialogue for these officials is one along these lines: “Who is it that I take direction and orders from? My line manager? Or the other guy in my department who has a direct line to the MEC, who has a direct line to particular business interests? Well, seeing that the situation is unclear, I think I’ll just keep my head down and not make a decision at all.”
A country’s prospects for development clearly do not just rest on an autonomous public administration. A far wider set of variables will shape this. But the international literature suggests that it is an indispensable ingredient.
A state fragmented and destabilised by the kind of corruption we see in many departments and municipalities in South Africa is not one steered in any coherent policy direction.
Countries with well-protected public services have a wide range of political and economic systems: from market liberalism to social-democratic capitalism and centrally planned economies — a movement for a more autonomous public service in South Africa could feasibly encompass actors from a wide political spectrum.
So how would this insulation from narrow political and private interests be built?
International experience has shown that attention to recruitment and training regimes is especially important in achieving this.
Civil servants must believe their job is not dependent on any one senior manager or politician. Those countries that have managed to better insulate their public servants from private interests have done so with systems that vary widely in the degree to which the ruling party exerts control over the senior ranks of the bureaucracy. But all have included protections against the clientele-like appointment of middle-level managers.
The executive has enormous opportunity to appoint not only heads of department but also mid-level and rank-and-file civil servants.
The Public Service Commission is mandated to monitor and evaluate the organisation and administration of the public service.
Over the past 20 years, it has played a valuable role in monitoring the conduct of public servants — but it lacks the teeth to ensure compliance by departments and politicians with its findings. It is time to debate the role of the commission in supporting the development of a more accountable public sector.
Training regimes should ideally create the institutional conditions for civil servants to resist the pressure or temptation to be involved in corruption — whether these come from their senior managers, politicians or their peers — and to become a powerful interest group that actively protects the space to work without fear or favour.
The idea is to support the development of a sense of camaraderie and networks of practice among civil servants.
These are unlikely to develop from short courses but from years of training with the same group of people.
At present, training for the public service is provided by a disparate set of organisations — schools of public administration in universities (usually only at postgraduate level) and vocational education and training colleges (training a small number at present).
The relatively new National School of Government has a potential role to play in providing cohort training for civil servant managers. Building a strong in-house teaching body and specialised curriculum will be essential to fulfilling this role.
Entrance exams to the public service should be introduced. At first this could test applicants’ knowledge of regulations and laws governing the civil service. As training regimes for public servants mature, these exams could become competitive assessments for members of the senior management service.
How we recruit and train our civil servants should be the subject of intense scrutiny and discussion. Who should have the power to perform these tasks? Which institutions and organisations should regulate them? How can these processes be improved or reinvented to serve a democratic and accountable state?
This critical debate should become the heart of the fight against corruption.
Sarah Meny-Gibert is a research fellow at the Public Affairs Research Institute affiliated to the University of the Witwatersrand, which supported the drafting team on the development of proposals for a national anti-corruption strategy. These are her own views