Future lies in education

2017-03-12 06:16

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Brutus Malada

Science, technology, management and the recognition of merit are crucial.

As opposition parties ready themselves to govern in 2019, areas they should prioritise are the restoration of public service credibility and staff morale.

Jacob Zuma’s era of misgoverning has severely injured the public service; merit has been his greatest casualty. Yokels have been catapulted from oblivion to positions of significance, leaving scores of qualified and experienced public servants demoralised.

Under Zuma, state-owned enterprises have become bankrupt, as his concubines and cronies loot with impunity. Chapter 9 institutions have become toothless. The Public Protector can no longer be trusted and the National Prosecuting Authority is becoming a hideout for discredited prosecutors. The Human Rights Commission is conspicuously absent.

Staff turnover among senior government employees is worrying. A study by an academic from the University of Cape Town shows that a total of 28 directors-general did not complete the full terms of their contracts during Zuma’s first term. One can only wonder how any public servant can work under the misfortune of a Bathabile Dlamini and look forward to going to work every morning.

To suggest that this trend stopped after 2014 is to allow wishes to father thoughts. No scintilla of morale can be expected amongst staff working in an environment characterised by such levels of mediocrity, rampant looting and instability in senior positions in government.

It goes without saying, therefore, that any opposition party that is readying itself to govern must develop clear strategies on how to professionalise the public service and rejuvenate staff morale. The beginning of such a process must be to learn from others; lessons from China and Germany are instructive.

In his compelling book, Deng Xiaoping and the transformation of China, Ezra Vogel illustrates how, after inheriting the disaster created by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Deng transformed China into a modern and efficient economy. Under Mao’s 27 years of misrule, China reached a point where food shortages were rife, and millions were dying of starvation and other unnatural causes. Intellectuals were purged and at some point no technical specialists were trained for an entire decade.

Under Mao, a proud centuries-old Confucian tradition requiring candidates to write examinations to gain entry into civil service was discarded. The public service became a patronage machinery to reward party cadres.

When Deng took over in 1978, he resolved to “open the country wide to science, technology and management systems, and new ideas from anywhere in the world, regardless of the country’s political system”. He was fraternal with China’s historic archenemies such as Japan and America, and sent legions of young people for training abroad, to learn and bring new ideas to help reform China.

He initiated reforms in education, which would later ensure that “new government officials would be chosen based on their knowledge and ability to manage, not just on whom they knew”. China is today an economic superpower because of their recognition of merit, promotion of science and technology, and because they learnt from others.

Some may hasten to suggest that the ANC can still salvage the situation and that Cyril Ramaphosa is positioned to be our Deng.

Regrettably, unlike Deng, Ramaphosa is intellectually weak, too meek in character and lacks the support of his party. The rot in the ANC is too deep and requires someone with a backbone to eradicate it. Ramaphosa has shown neither the stamina nor knowledge of what needs to be done.

Deng could succeed because China was not a democracy, but a one-party dictatorship. Being a democracy, Germany is, perhaps, a better example.

In his volume, Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama traces the origins of Germany’s culture of excellence and merit from the ancient time of Frederick the Great’s empires that ruled Prussia long before integration.

In Prussia we find two characters, Baron Karl vom und zum Stein (1757–1831) and Prince Karl August von Hardenberg (1750–1822). They pushed for ground-breaking reforms in the public sector, which saw Prussia break away from a patrimonial to a merit-based system of employment.

While many attempts were made before, the Edict of October 1807 marked a turning point. It abolished the privileges of the nobility in the civil service and opened up bureaucratic posts to commoners. A new principle was enshrined – “Career open to talent” – as the guiding spirit for government appointments. In the process “patrimonial deadwood was purged” and it was no longer one’s birth, but one’s education that determined success in a career in the public service. As early as 1817, regulations were passed setting secondary education as a minimum requirement for employment in the Prussian government.

A person like Hlaudi Motsoeneng would not even have been eligible for the most junior of clerical positions in Prussia two hundred years ago. That’s how far behind we are as a country! Meanwhile, a degree in law was needed for employment into higher positions such as chief executive officer and director-general in parastatals and government departments.

Parallel to this was a reform of the university sector, to prepare these institutions to produce graduates for employment in the civil service; only the best and brightest would be recruited. Civil service in Germany is today highly professionalised and is the envy of the world, and to be employed there is a mark of prestige, a source of pride and honour.

The famous German word ‘bildung’, loosely translated to mean education, embodies merit. The idea of bildung was promoted during the growth of the Enlightenment movement in Germany in the 18th century.

The world has come to know and appreciate remarkable thinkers like Goethe, Fichte, Humboldt, Kant and others associated with the Enlightenment movement, all because of Germany’s recognition of excellence.

It cannot be denied that the reforms that started with the Edict of October 1807 have rubbed off across spheres of German society. Today, many among us enjoy the comfort of Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and so on – all products of Germany’s excellence. The position of the country as the anchor of Europe’s economy today, despite its horrendous past, should be credited for the quality of public education.

The world is replete with examples from which we can learn. We may be where Germany was in 1807, or where China was in 1978, but we must never be despondent. Our journey must begin with valuing education, and promoting excellence and merit. This is what any party that is ready to govern must prioritise.

The big questions, though, are: Who will be our Deng Xiaoping, and will the equivalent of Baron Karl vom und zum Stein please stand up?

Malada is a member of the Midrand Group


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