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Real relief requires the reform of state recruitment

The recruitment processes in government have been under debate and scrutiny for years. Allegations of nepotism, cadre deployment and the recruitment of unqualified candidates in government departments have been well documented

Now, as South Africa deals with the Covid-19 pandemic, we see how previous recruitment practices have seeded the glaring weaknesses in government’s implementation of relief measures. It is time to seriously reconsider state recruitment as a source of reform for capacity and implementation. 

Covid-19 has pushed countries and their economies and societies to the edge of their capabilities and resources, and South Africa is no exception. Moreover, it is increasingly clear that countries with resources and empathetic leaders, as well as strong public administration capabilities, have been able to implement quick and efficient relief measures. 

In April, a month into national lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that there would be a number of relief measures available to families, communities and businesses. Key relief measures included a R350 top-up for social grant recipients, food parcels, Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) relief payments and business relief funds. 

The announcement of these relief packages brought hope for many people. There was a sense that, although the government is imperfect, the president’s resolute stance on fighting the pandemic would somehow ensure assistance for those in need. But the spectre of the government’s weak capacity cannot be escaped during a pandemic. This was apparent at the end of May, when only 10 people had received the R350 top-up after approximately two months of national lockdown. 

It is not the first time that the management and payment of social grants by the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) have been delayed, causing more hardship for grant recipients. The daily reality for the vast majority of South Africans is hunger and malnutrition. Smith and Ledger, in their recent  article, showed that fewer than 20% of households can afford to spend money on nutritious food. There is a desperate need to increase the government’s capacity while acknowledging the massive repair that a democratic government has to do. 

The Public Affairs Research Institute has identified that one way to strengthen government’s capacity is through careful reform of the appointment and removal processes in the public administration. The recommendation is for the development of a generic appointment process throughout the public administration, to ensure that the most skilled, experienced and objective people are recruited into government. Precisely for moments such as this pandemic, their knowledge and experience could expedite the implementation of urgent relief programmes. Having the right people in the right positions at a crucial time could see a government that addresses the injustices in our society, rather than compounding them. 

The generic appointment process involves process planning where legislation, competitiveness and non-partisanship principles are established; the formation of a selection committee that will test candidates and have field-specific committee members; shortlisting; and appointment from the relevant shortlist. 

These reforms align with the National Development Plan’s recommendations and will create a more objective and professional public service. In addition, the recommendations point to the need to strengthen existing government departments such as the Public Service Commission, to exercise meaningful authority in appointment and removal processes in the public administration. 

Covid-19 has not exposed anything that we did not already know about the government’s capacity; it has, in fact, confirmed our worst expectations. It is time for the government to start listening to concrete and holistic recommendations to prevent piecemeal implementation of urgent relief measures and ordinary public policy. South Africa’s public administration needs to strengthen its capacity through reforming recruitment processes in order to realise the very real possibility of relieving the most pressing needs in our society.  

Dr Thokozani Chilenga-Butao is a lecturer in the political studies department at the University of the Witwatersrand and a research associate at the Public Affairs Research Institute

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