A Curious Case: Jacob Zuma never addresses our core problems

2014-06-22 15:00

President Jacob Zuma confirmed in his state of the nation address on Tuesday what has been apparent for some time. His administration’s preferred leadership style is through corrective interventions.

We saw this in 2009, when he announced the first of many presidential interventions to help municipalities fix dilapidated infrastructure. We saw it again in 2011, when his administration placed three provincial government departments under national government administration.

And we saw it in the plethora of task teams set up since the start of his first term to focus on specific issues: maths and science education; housing; e-tolls; violence against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community; mining; and allegations that teachers’ union Sadtu officials are selling posts.

The list is endless. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Focused interventions can get derailed plans back on track. But there are limitations.

Some interventions are just showboating, like former human settlements minister Tokyo Sexwale’s sanitation task team headed by Winnie Mandela.

And interventions from on high can often be the death knell to accountability. We saw this with the task teams that “investigated” the Limpopo textbooks scandal, the unauthorised landing at Waterkloof and spending on security upgrades at the president’s Nkandla home.

An intervention should also be rare and temporary. It’s meant only to correct an aberration. If virtually every service-delivery plan you have requires extended or repeat interventions, then they were either bad plans or were being poorly implemented.

The intervention in Limpopo, for example, took the better part of two years to complete. Stanley Mathabatha, the province’s new premier, says he’s confident the province will not fail again – but in his final report on the province, then auditor-general Terence Nombembe expressed a “very low” level of comfort that the primary causes of the collapse had been addressed.

Nombembe’s other audit reports also suggest that the core problem throughout the public service is a lack of people with the requisite knowledge and skills in provincial departments and municipalities. This creates a gulf between the state’s intentions and the actual services it has the capacity to deliver – the gulf becomes a hotbed for malfeasance.

On Tuesday, the president tried to bridge this gulf with two more interventions. The first was a unit within Treasury that would handle government’s procurement needs. The other was an interministerial task team on service delivery and infrastructure development in provinces and municipalities.

The approach might work for a while, but it won’t fix the core problem. For that, Collins Chabane, the new minister of public service and administration, would need to get state training and personnel performance management systems working.

Like his predecessors, he’ll be up against an unyielding culture in the public service of shirking responsibility. He’ll also be up against public servants and their unions who believe, with good cause, that performance management agreements make them easier to fire.

What makes his task especially hard is that many public servants enter the public service for the first time as graduates with a pre-existing deficit in knowledge and skills.

They are products of the significantly larger lower tier of this country’s two-tiered education system. The system’s outcomes are determined by the socioeconomic position and race of the graduate more than anything else.

The private sector has got around this by providing remedial training and recruiting mainly from the system’s tiny upper tier. The public sector, however, does not have that luxury, nor are its remedial training programmes up to scratch, let alone its standard ones.

Many of the people who the public sector has failed end up tasked with performing tasks – like teaching, policing and infrastructure development – that have a direct bearing on whether the public sector will fail more people.

Nevertheless, the president didn’t announce any bold new plans on education. His plan to increase the matric exemption rate to the present-day equivalent of 50% by 2019 will only grow the top tier marginally.

The speech was scant on details of how. It appears the administration expects it to be a by-product of the other programmes to tackle poverty, inequality and unemployment.

This reduces the president’s interventions to the equivalent of a finger in the wall of a cracked and leaking dam – and someone else’s problem in 2019.

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