Behind the service-delivery crisis

2013-08-27 10:00

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Very little united South Africans at the dawn of their democratic transition, but if there was anything – other than the desire to avert a civil war – it was a yearning for political accountability and service delivery.

Yet by 2013, public opinion across the political spectrum agreed there was both a lack of accountability and a general shortfall in service delivery. How did this come to pass? asks Adam Habib.

There are four distinct causes of the malaise in the public service, only two of which are identified by the National Planning Commission’s Development Plan: Vision for 2030

Affirmative action, cadre deployment and the corporate ethic in the civil service

The Planning Commission recognises (the) problem, but does not comprehensively address the challenge posed by the conflict between appointing a civil service only on merit and one that is demographically representative. These goals are not mutually exclusive, but are in tension, at least temporarily, in a society where skill sets remain largely racially defined as a result of the past’s segregated education.

It is too simplistic to blame affirmative action for the state of our public service. Rather, it is its coupling with conservative macroeconomic policies and the creep of corporate principles into the public service that generated the current state of affairs.

Any transfer of skills and capacity involves two distinct processes: training and mentorship. The adoption of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (Gear) circumvented this. Gear required cuts in state expenditure and a reduction in the numbers of state employees at the very moment at which the state had to be demographically transformed.

As black staff were being recruited to the civil service, mostly white incumbents were being allowed and even encouraged to leave. This sabotaged the skills-transfer process. The very people who could have played the role of mentors were no longer in the public service and black recruits, particularly newly qualified young graduates, were set up for failure as they entered the public service.

This process has played out particularly tragically in the education sector. Driven by a desire to cut costs, the education department began to retrench teachers in the second half of the 1990s, offering a voluntary severance package to teachers. Not surprisingly, the best teachers in the system took up the offer, leaving the least qualified teachers in the system. Similar implosions have played out in department after department in the post-apartheid state.

Cadre deployment has further aggravated the situation, with the ANC establishing a committee to manage the deployment of cadres to the public service. Deployment happens in all countries, including democracies, and is permissible when confined to political appointments (ministers, deputy ministers) and the most senior levels of the public service (perhaps directors-general). But the deployment of cadres has extended across the entire apparatus of the state.

Post-Polokwane, this has been worsened by factional rather than cadre deployment. Party or even factional loyalty rather than skills become the criteria for state employment, leading to high staff turnover and loss of institutional memory.

Added to this has been the infusion of a corporate ethic into public institutions. To be fair, these new principles of public administration predated the ANC’s ascension to power and have included an expansion of managerial layers within the state, a growing inequality in the remuneration between public sector managers and employees, and the use of quantitative performance management systems uncritically adopted from the private sector. This meant quantitative benchmarks – to which annual bonuses were tied – were established for transformation targets.

One of many perverse consequences was that a public service manager would be rewarded for not appointing a white candidate to a vacancy, even if no black candidate was available, since employing a white candidate would compromise that manager’s transformation targets and annual bonus, despite the fact that such behaviour violates the spirit of South Africa’s Constitution.

Not only is the public service now saddled with employees who have severe deficiencies in their skill sets, but there are also too many individuals working for the state for other ends, including the procurement of state tenders. This has gone hand in hand with spreading corruption.

Blurred boundaries and lack of clarity between spheres of government

As the commission recognises, the blurred ?boundaries between spheres of government, and the lack of clarity in the lines of authority between them, are a serious impediment to the efficient functioning of the civil service.

It is worth noting that the lack of housing is one of the major causes of local protests.

Housing is, however, a provincial and national responsibility, but municipal authorities are almost always the ones targeted in housing protests.

This fact, together with daily examples of piecemeal planning (where, for instance, housing infrastructure is coordinated by provincial government without proper attention being given to the necessary water, electricity, sanitation and waste-removal infrastructure, all of which is managed by municipal authorities) suggests that there is a serious need for clarification in the roles and responsibilities of the various structures and spheres of government.


Corruption is the second causal factor recognised by the National Planning Commission, which bravely acknowledges that one of the biggest obstacles to this problem is the lack of political will.

It explicitly states that unless those who have been corrupt are dealt with efficiently and transparently, regardless of their political connections, state anti-corruption initiatives will never gain the legitimacy they need to succeed.

It will also be very difficult to develop an institutional culture within the civil service that challenges and exposes corruption.

Inadequate resources

The service-delivery problem is not just about corruption and lack of skills. A further factor associated with dysfunctional public institutions is lack of adequate resources and the institutional crises that this promotes.

This might seem surprising, given that conventional wisdom suggests resources are not the problem. After all, many departments regularly fail to spend their allocated resources and the state has run a surplus over years.

But failure to spend departmental budgets should not automatically lead to the conclusion that there is adequate resourcing, especially in public institutions that suffer from dramatic understaffing.

Rather, the surpluses generated by the state in earlier years, or the small deficits they hope to achieve in years to come, may actually be symptoms of lack of capacity.

To understand and tackle the capacity deficit, we must look beyond the popular conservative view that it is simply a product of cadre deployment and affirmative action run amok.

Rather, a complex array of factors feed into the problem and the net outcome has been a service-delivery crisis that not only compromises the image of the state, but subverts its inclusive development aspirations.

» Habib is vice-chancellor and principal of Wits University. This package is a truncated and edited excerpt from his book South Africa’s Suspended Revolution. Get it at for R252

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