Melanie Verwoerd

Melanie Verwoerd: The biggest challenge to Ramaphosa's New Dawn

2020-01-22 05:00
President Cyril Ramaphosa has set himself the daunting challenge of trying to clean up the public service. (Gallo Images, Sowetan, Sebabatso Mosamo)

President Cyril Ramaphosa has set himself the daunting challenge of trying to clean up the public service. (Gallo Images, Sowetan, Sebabatso Mosamo)

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At the moment there are hundreds if not thousands of public servants who are facing disciplinary action - mostly for procurement procedures which were not followed - although in many instances they did not benefit from it directly. This means that departments are literally running on empty, writes Melanie Verwoerd

When people complain about the state of our government they usually focus on the politicians.

Unsurprisingly so, given the idiotic statements the elected officials frequently make and the gigantic mess that we have been left with after the Zuma presidency.

But here's the thing: politicians can be replaced – as they frequently are even in our electoral system. Cabinet ministers can be hired and fired as has happened often over the past decades.

Yes, politicians make policy. They are the face of the state. However, there are many people, who, behind the scenes, advise the politicians on policy and then, once policies have been decided on, implement those decisions.

These public servants are the ones who ultimately make or break the country. They bake the proverbial cake after the recipe is written by the politicians.

We have a gigantic public service.

According to the Quarterly Employment statistics (QES) we had 2.69 million public servants in June 2014. (I struggled to find more updated statistics, but we can assume it to be either more or about the same).

According to that report, over 455 000 worked on a national level, double that number (about 1.1 million) on provincial level (what on earth can they all be doing?) and another 300 000-odd were employed on local level.

Just under 300 000 worked in libraries, parks etc.

Of course this doesn't come cheap.

The average public servant salary is more than R300 000 per annum (although that differs vastly depending on rank and geography). Whatever the case might be, paying all these public servants eats up around a third of the National Budget.

President Ramaphosa has repeatedly stated his wish for a professional and competent public service. In his most recent newsletter to the nation he states: "A capable state starts with the people who work in it. Officials and managers must possess the right financial and technical skills and other expertise."

No one can disagree with this.

He continued: "We are committed to end the practice of poorly qualified individuals being parachuted into positions of authority through political patronage. There should be consequences for all those in the public service who do not do their work."

Eh ok, so here is where the proverbial messy stuff hits the fan.

The problem is that it is very difficult to get rid of a public servant.

Unless they commit something really minor (like sneezing too often) strict processes have to be followed. Of course this is correct since there have been too many examples of personal and political disagreements ending in false accusations of misconduct.

The problem is that these processes take time and money - a lot of it.

And while all of that is happening the accused are "relieved of their duties" (with full pay of course).

At the moment there are hundreds if not thousands of public servants who are facing disciplinary action - mostly for procurement procedures which were not followed - although in many instances they did not benefit from it directly.

This means that departments are literally running on empty. Ministers and Director Generals (if they are not also suspended) then have to appoint people to act temporarily (read months to years) in these positions.

Like someone said there are more actors in the South African public sector than the whole of Hollywood.

For example, because of all the suspensions in the department of State Security right now, it has been suggested that we actually have two whole departments -those on suspension and those acting in their place.

This is possibly the worst legacy of the Zuma years. Not only were politicians captured or treated as personal golden egg laying hens for a few businessmen, but tragically the public service was also captured by Zuma and his cronies.

This will remain the biggest problem for Ramaphosa and the recovery of South Africa.

If you speak to current and ex-public servants (and I'm talking here of ones who remain ANC supporters) you are left with a very bleak picture. Someone who was very senior in Treasury recently expressed his despair to me at what he says will be an inevitable slow decline, unless something dramatic happens in the public sector.

President Ramaphosa talks about a School of Government as well as new integrated plans. Without a doubt all good initiatives. But something needs to happen fast. For one, they might need to consider a process that can look at all the suspensions and deal with the minor ones in an expedited manner. Yes, corruption has to be dealt with, but let’s get the big fish (politicians and civil servants) and then find a way of putting the small fry on notice.

Secondly, even though the government needs to cut down on the huge salary bill (and thus reduce the number of civil servants) this needs to be done in a cautious and responsible way.

Through the Zuma years an enormous number of skilled public servants left. The tragedy is, that the skills base and institutional memory that was painstakingly built since 1994 can't easily be replaced.

There are still competent and committed public servants in our country. They often work under dire circumstances and are treated badly by politicians and the public. These are the ones we need to support and reward.

The only problem is they are few and far apart and for the New Dawn to succeed this will have to change fast.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

See www.melanieverwoerd.co.za

Read more on:    cyril ramaphosa  |  jacob zuma  |  public servants  |  politics  |  corruption
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