/ 17 June 2024

Reforming South Africa’s civil service: A path to depoliticisation and professionalism

Whatsapp Image 2024 05 29 At 14.42.58
Voting with their feet: The turnout in last month’s election was the lowest since the dawn of democracy, a reflection of growing mistrust in South Africa’s democratic institutions. (Delwyn Verasamy, Mail & Guardian)

On 29 May, roughly 16 million South Africans exercised one of their fundamental democratic rights by casting their votes in the seventh general election since 1994. 

This election was monumental not just in that it marked the 30th anniversary of South Africa’s democracy but also because, for the first time, citizens decided that no single political party should win an outright majority. 

Such a situation is called a “hung parliament” and it requires political parties to collaborate to form a government and make decisions. This is the first time South Africa will be navigating a national hung parliament, which inevitably shifts the political landscape for at least the next five years. 

Given the anticipated shifts in the country’s political landscape, we discuss some of the major policy issues that have animated the election period and that will be crucial for the next parliament to consider. 

One of the key issues overlooked in public discourse surrounding this election has been the poor voter turnout, with the past few elections experiencing a general decline in electoral engagement. 

Voter turnout, as a percentage of the total number of voter registrations, has been dropping. For example, in 2014 turnout was around 73%; this dropped to 66% in 2019 and fell to an all-time low of 58% in this election. 

This trend suggests a deeper problem than mere apathy among the voting population. One explanation for this worrying trend is that low voter turnout is a reflection of the growing negativity South Africans feel towards the political system. 

The Human Sciences Research Council, which publishes an annual survey, found that over the past 10 years there has been a decline in satisfaction with democracy, and growing mistrust in South Africa’s democratic institutions, both at a national and local level. 

Consequently, citizens are less likely to buy into South Africa’s democratic system and will therefore be less likely to participate in the democratic process. 

In other words, to rebuild the loss of trust between citizens and democratic systems, the way in which political accountability is realised in South Africa’s political system needs to be revised. 

And while our democracy is set up to ensure various levels and measures of political accountability, given the shifting dynamics, there are three pressing issues that the next national legislature must work through to improve accountability and address the growing levels of dissatisfaction among citizens. 

First is electoral reform. Over the past several years there have been calls from various spheres of society to reform the electoral system to address a number of key oversights. 

One of these was the failure of the electoral system to allow independent candidates to contest polls. 

This eventually culminated in a June 2020 ruling by the constitutional court mandating parliament to devise an electoral system that allows for independent candidates. 

Recommendations were given by an electoral reform panel set up to advise parliament. The majority of panellists favoured a wider set of reforms, which not only addressed the issue of independents, but also proposed a more direct system for citizens to hold elected officials accountable. 

However, due to various factors, including serious time constraints before this year’s elections, Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi decided to adopt the minority recommendation, which only slightly amended the electoral system. 

However, as the seventh national assembly convenes, it is necessary to revisit this issue and address some of the problems that were not covered by the amendments. Specifically, the panel’s recommendation to adopt a system whereby a certain portion of MPs would be elected through a direct, constituency-based vote must be examined. 

In the Policy Briefing by Good Governance Africa in June last year, we argued that such a reform would ensure that citizens were able to hold elected officials accountable beyond the ballot box. 

Through deepening direct accountability, the government can begin to rebuild trust with citizens. This would, over time, improve levels of satisfaction with the democratic system, if political representatives and government officials became more responsive as a result.

Another crucial aspect that should be considered to improve trust in the democratic system concerns coalitions. 

Legal practitioner Jennica Beukes argues that many key challenges emerge from having power-sharing agreements, such as coalition governments. 

These include political positions being exploited as bargaining chips, political instability and a lack of cohesive political will to fulfil and follow through on coalition agreements, all of which undermine citizens’ ability to hold their governments accountable. 

With the rise in hung councils seen across municipalities, there has been growing pressure for the government to institute a formalised coalitions framework and legislation that would manage these issues and allow for greater accountability if guidelines are broken or not met. 

Recently, the cooperative governance and traditional affairs ministry proposed an amendment to the Local Government: Municipal Structures Act of 1998, which provides a clear legislative framework for coalitions. 

Despite the fact that it focuses on local government, it can provide helpful guidelines for political parties, especially as it pertains to making coalition agreements public and, in the longer term, formalised.  

In an article by Good Governance Africa, we argue that making such agreements public helps to ensure that the coalition partners are accountable and thus less likely to use the coalition for individual or party gains.

Given this, the incoming National Assembly should prioritise examining how best to deepen coalition stability at national and provincial levels in the spirit of citizen accountability. 

Finally, a vital issue the incoming National Assembly should address is how to depoliticise the civil service to ensure citizens are served independent of political volatility. 

One way to do this is by professionalising the civil service. The department of public services and administration recently introduced a directive to implement the 2022 National Framework on Professionalisation of the Civil Service

Part of this is to ensure that all new and current public servants are trained and upskilled so that they are able to carry out their mandate.

In addition, shortly before the election, the National assembly passed two bills, namely the Public Administration Management Amendment Bill and the Public Service Amendment Bill, which both aim to depoliticise and professionalise the civil service. 

These bills seek to not only improve the transfer of public servants between departments and levels of government, but also make provisions to separate the powers of elected officials and staff in the public service. 

This separation generates greater accountability and reduces the likelihood of corruption.

However, despite the fact that these bills are being deliberated by the National Council of Provinces, they still need to go through several more rounds of review before being assented to. 

Both the council and the president should prioritise finalising the signing of the bills, while the various departments should prioritise making the necessary arrangements to start implementing them. 

Doing so will ensure that the various departments are able to work effectively and efficiently without being delayed due to any political instability, which might occur in the next five years. 

Growing concerns related to mistrust and dissatisfaction in South Africa’s democratic system signal that more needs to be done by elected officials and the government to restore public confidence, transparency and accountability. This will strengthen the foundations of democracy. 

Given the emergence, and vulnerability, of a new political landscape such a focus must be prioritised to ensure citizens are able to effectively participate in the political system while simultaneously seeing elected officials held to account.

Stuart Morrison is a data analyst and Mischka Moosa a data journalist at Good Governance Africa.