South Africans who deal with bureaucracy often blame its apparent paralysis, or at least lethargy, on corruption, incompetence or laziness, but neglect a frequently more corrosive ailment that one might call structural failure.
To be sure, there are departments and ministries that function well, or as well as can be expected given their huge, almost impossible tasks in very trying circumstances — but the bulk often seem to have either imploded or come to a grinding halt.
When there are five directors general of government departments on suspension, as there are now, there have to be questions raised about whether those departments are still able to function efficiently and effectively. The conflict between (and the contradictory accounts of events given by) the minister of social services, Bathabile Dlamini, and her former director general is worrying. Dlamini is facing a judicial inquiry into the social grants debacle, one outcome of which was the rupture between her and her director general.
In this instance, as in others, one is inclined to blame the minister — because she has a history of high-handed behaviour and refusal to account. Directors general are all too frequently the people holding ministers in line, or at least keeping their noses to the grindstone of governance, something that may be hard to do when the minister is busy doing factionalist party work on behalf of a presidential hopeful.
It was reported this week that Minister of Public Service and Administration Faith Muthambi had served three senior officers with notices of suspension: the department’s director general, the deputy director general responsible for administration, and the chief financial officer. It was claimed that they stood in the way of some of her expensive plans for the department, including izimbizo and roadshows. It sounds like they were just doing their job.
So far this year, the directors general of agriculture, water affairs and home affairs have been placed on suspension. Court challenges are afoot, and some dirt is coming out — the agriculture director general, for instance, says he lost his job because he wouldn’t sign off on a dodgy contract. We shall see where that goes. But in the meantime, can the government legitimately claim that these departments are functioning properly, if at all?