Crunch time for ANC

2009-06-04 00:00

IT’S crunch time for the ruling African National Congress. The ANC was recently returned to power by the electorate on the basis of its promises to make amends for past failures by delivering proper services and creating decent work.

The party’s election manifesto placed much emphasis on a developmental state which would “play a central and strategic role in the economy. We will ensure a more effective government; improve the co-ordination and planning efforts of the developmental state by means of a planning entity to ensure faster change. A review of the structure of government will be undertaken, to ensure effective service delivery.”

The hard reality is that locally, the state and parastatal sector is in a complete mess. According to Democratic Alliance estimates, “R100-billion of public money” had to be spent on propping up nine failing parastatal institutions between 2004 and 2008.

As Ray Hartley recently noted, “The public service, which the Zuma government has inherited from the Mbeki years, is in tatters. Hospitals and public schools are taking a lot of strain. They do not need more funding. They need better management of their existing budgets.”

It is hard to see how the usual ANC remedies of more planning, greater central control and further institutional restructuring are going to cure the state’s institutional sickness. The real challenge for the ruling party is to change itself — its own mindset and usual way of doing things — and start placing the proper value on expertise.

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that, assuming that a person has the aptitude for a particular vocation, it still requires almost a decade of practice before he or she will be able to master it. He writes, “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”

Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin as saying: “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

Presumably this rule also applies to the tasks that judges, engineers, managers, prosecutors, hospital administrators, school principals and so on, are required to perform. And yet, what is striking about the Mbeki-era, is how little weight was ever given to relevant expertise when it came to making appointments.

In the mid-nineties, the ANC obliterated much of the state’s institutional capacity by pushing out and pensioning off tens of thousands of highly experienced officials. In making replacements expertise barely got a look in — political loyalty and demographic representivity was all that really mattered.

An example of the prevailing ethos was recently provided by a case that came before the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein. It concerned the appointment of the principal of Kimberley Junior School in the Northern Cape. The post was advertised by the provincial Education Department. The school governing body set up a committee and four short-listed candidates were interviewed. The school determined that only one candidate, a Mr P. Theunissen, was suitable to take up the position of principal.

He had, according to the school’s motivation to the local Department of Education, “obtained a score of 98,8, has been a deputy principal for nine years and acting principal for six months. He has excellent experience, sound knowledge of the administration and financial management of a primary school. He has taught for 17 years in a primary school and has insight into current education issues relevant to primary school education. He has had leadership experience in a multi-cultural school.”

The second candidate, a Ms S. Rantho, had obtained a score of 58,1. The school noted: “She is currently HOD at a secondary school in Bloemfontein and does not have teaching experience in a primary school. Nor does she have adequate administration and management skills to be a principal of a primary school.”

The recommendation of the school was, however, overridden by the department on purely racial grounds, and Rantho was appointed.

If Jacob Zuma is going to start delivering on his election promises he is going to have to begin by putting an end to this kind of lunacy. —

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