Inside the take-over

2011-11-05 09:41

If history is a river flowing inexorably towards a distant ocean, to what extent can it be channelled, diverted and dammed by those who navigate its waters?

Much of our thinking and discourse on the river our country is currently traversing seems to be aimed at yelling admonitions to the navigators, helmsmen and crew of the vessel in which we find ourselves.

We pay scant attention to the designers and builders of the boat, constructed somewhere up-river where the waters were perhaps calmer and where there was no anticipation of the needs downstream.

And we perhaps pay scanter attention to the river’s sources and to the humanness of those charged with steering our vessel.

Thus has it been with the current discourse on post-apartheid South Africa; on the state charged with undoing the legacies of racism, colonialism and economic exploitation; and on the ruling party duly assigned the task of steering the boat.

The Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) was born with a singular purpose – to bring together the past and present officers and crews, the passengers, the ship-builders, the navigators, the hydrologists, the geographers, the climatologists, the engineers, the victuallers of the vessel we are sailing to reflect on the river.

Mistra’s research project on The Evolution of the South African State applies this approach to understanding what the state inherited from the past, its suitability to the transformative agenda, and the impact of these factors on the successes and failures of post-apartheid South Africa.

Some 20 years after South Africa’s negotiated settlement it is easy – perhaps even fashionable – as we contemplate the effects of the compromises made, to criticise the liberation movement for giving away too much.

The negotiating process itself was a desperately delicate balancing act. The liberation movement and the democratic forces had to chart a passage through a complex and treacherous balance of forces.

But for those of us charged with taking over the organs of state, the negotiations and transition processes dealt us an almost impossible hand. We inherited structures, processes and systems unsuited to the tasks at hand.

We inherited public servants who still largely believed that the public was made up of less than 20% of the population, who had varying levels of skills and who did not think we should have won the elections.

We inherited a culture of patronage, corruption and disdain for the public; of authoritarianism and bureaucracy. We inherited an ideology diametrically opposed to the broadly progressive one we strove to introduce.

And those of us expected to counter and overcome this inheritance were relatively few and far between. Those of us drawn into the public sector had no experience of governing or of managing large organisations and budgets.

The ANC’s cadres were also vastly outnumbered by those from the former statutory services. They had no experience of the statutory environment and could be easily duped by process and procedure.

Their struggle intelligence experience was minimally suited to the requirements and operating milieu of a state intelligence organisation.

They were susceptible to the intoxication of the power, privileges and benefits of public-sector employment in a particularly protected environment.

And they were confronted by the psychology and sociology of having to work collegially with those whom they had not long before counted among the most virulent of their enemies, and worse.

The ANC understood that if the new government hoped to control its intelligence services and effect further trans-formation going forward, they would have to ensure the place-ment of capable cadres into leading positions in the new services from the start.

The inherited culture was one of oppression and authoritarianism – of management by fear. It was also one of a racial, national and gender hierarchy. The over-arching unifying factor, of course, was whiteness, but even within that there was a pecking order.

Perhaps unexpectedly, as the ANC sought to bring to bear its more egalitarian, management-by-consensus approach to organisational functioning, it found at least partial allies among non-Afrikaners and women.

But beyond this slight chink, the social and working networks in the services remained (and continued to present time to remain) largely racially, nationally and language based, impacting in no small way on the effective functioning of the services.

In spite of the tightly managed and passionately pursued transformation process, the realities of the “dealt hand” – global realities; cultural, procedural and personnel inheritances; and domestic, international and personal pressures – meant that the transformation was painful and partial.

Few have understood the centrality of the Department of Home Affairs to the new South Africa’s statehood and to the transformatory agenda of the post-apartheid government.

Home affairs is at the coalface of government’s service delivery. It provides our citizens with the enabling documen-tation that allows access to the other services of government, as well as to the private sector.

The inherited culture at the department assumed that government’s role was to control rather than to facilitate. In the private sector they have a slogan: “The customer is always right.”

However, in home affairs we seemed to have an unwritten slogan that the customer is always wrong. Almost a decade into democracy, issues critical to statehood and the ability of government to deliver services remained largely unaddressed.

The reasons are manifold, among them that for reasons of understandable political expediency, a non-ANC minister was appointed as political head of the department from 1994.

He did not necessarily share the ANC’s transformatory agenda.The department have also been through a number of directors-general since 1994, impacting on the continuity of efforts to address the challenges.

In addition, home affairs was a conglomerate of apartheid-era citizen control entities. And the management and staff of the department were drawn almost totally from the old apartheid and bantustan administrations.

Getting them to understand and implement the necessary transformatory interventions was in itself a task fit for Sisyphus.

Unlike the amalgamation process in the intelligence services, which was itself no panacea, there was no attempt to inject talented, committed and progressive transformers into the department from the beginning.

The lack of depth of transformatory leadership in the department led successive directors-general to rely on consultants to assess, design and – in some cases – implement transformation programmes.

The experience of working within the post-apartheid South African state teaches many lessons. The key lesson is clearly that the inherited state was in many ways an unsuitable instrument for the nature, extent and depth of the transformation required post-1994.

But historical realities – the negotiated settlement and the transitional arrangements – dictated that this would be the only instrument available.

Also, the attempts at transformation were being made in the context of combating and balancing the interests, interventions and obstruc-tionism of many social forces (domestic and global), the most powerful of which clearly perpetuated the old social, cultural and economic order.

If these realities are accepted – that we had no choice but to accept the state of the river and the vessel we found ourselves in at the time we took over the helm – then the only instrumentality available to us was to place transforming agents into the state to design and drive the programmes of change of the state itself and the policies and projects it undertook.

And herein lays the vulnerability.These agents of transformat

ion were only human, subject to the pulls and thrusts of the buffeting boat as it ploughed its way through the rapids. Some succeeded, some had the helm snatched away from them, some fell overboard, some were pushed and some jumped.

Capable agents of transformation were hard to come by. Most had to ride a steep learning curve to understand the vessel and the waters beneath and ahead.

The continual loss of such learning and the lack of proper processes to institutionalise (and revolutionise) it is perhaps – all theory and history aside – the greatest failing of those charged with steering the vessel to calmer waters.

» Gilder is director of operations at Mistra. This is an edited version of a discussion paper prepared for Mistra’s The Evolution of the South African State.

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