A professional public service: Local government graduates

Applause and ululations greeted each graduating local government official as they took to the stage.
Applause and ululations greeted each graduating local government official as they took to the stage.
Phelokazi Mbude

Challenges facing local government include capacity, capability, skills, ethics and accountability. A potential solution to this is to professionalise public service.

This is what the graduating candidates heard ahead of the Leadership in Municipal Governance graduation ceremony at the Wits School of Governance this month.

In an open discussion with the speakers present, the graduates heard how they could be of better service to the people of South Africa.

The speakers included former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, SA Local Government Association president Parks Tau, Deputy Auditor-General Tsakani Ratsela, Professor William Gumede and Dr Robin Moore.

William Gumede of the Wits School of Governance; Deputy Auditor-General Tsakani Ratsela; Salga president Parks Tau; Dr Robin Moore, executive director of the Gauteng City Region Observatory; former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela; and programme director Vuyo Mvoko (at the lectern).

“It really begins and ends with the quality of leadership that’s deployed, or that’s rather entrusted with the responsibility to serve our people,” said Ratsela.

“That’s the only way we’re going to build institutions. We’ve got to build a professional public service that attracts the best, develops the best and retains the very best talent.”

Gumede said: “There’s a mismatch of skills in our political leadership to deal with the complexity of our problems. So our political leadership may be politically adequate, have the political capacity and the political learning, but might not have the technical learning.”

He encouraged lifelong learning to address this.

Ratsela interrogated how the administrative component of public service can be professionalised and put it to the floor to consider.

Local government leaders honour the legacy of Nelson Mandela through inspiring thought leadership in the local government sphere.

“So I think it’s important that we look at how we professionalise public service. The people we deploy – do the have the competencies, do they behave ethically and are they held accountable for behaving in that way? That will compensate in a large part for the concerns we are currently seeing today,” she said.

Tau said there was an attempt to ensure that capable leaders were fostered to be able to take the institutions forward, but was still critical of the current status quo.

Read: Accountability and service: Lessons from Madiba

“I think the word cadre is perverted. I think, in fact, ‘cadre’ should be referring to the most capable, committed and skilled people in our society who are prepared to be the sacrifices. So if you take the most incapable, you’ve perverted the word cadre itself and I think that’s part of the problem we need to resolve,” he said.

Stand up and be counted: Thuli Madonsela speaks at the SA Local Government Association leadership conversations at the Wits School of Governance

Madonsela appealed to the humanity of those holding public office to think beyond just ending corruption.

“We tend to treat poor people poorly, we tend to treat people who are not like us poorly. In this conversation, as we are creating this new society, let’s just think that we’re not going to end corruption only.

“We’re going to create a more humane society because, if we don’t, everything else that we are going to do, including ending corruption, is not going to help us when it comes to those we are leaving behind in the next generation,” Madonsela said. 

Read: Thuli Madonsela: We all have a role to play

Gumede echoed this point and was also critical of the current state of society.

“Society is in an absolute crisis, whether it is reflected in the public space, in the councillor space or a representative space,” he said.

After this frank engagement, the local government officials prepared for the graduation proceedings.

Local government leaders honour the legacy of Nelson Mandela through inspiring thought leadership in the local government sphere.

A sea of 105 mayors, speakers and municipal managers in blue graduation gowns filled one half of the room.

Wits School of Governance head Professor David Everatt was encouraging in his congratulatory message to those graduating on the day.

“I really hope that many of you are going to return, whether you return here or to another university, and you keep studying and you keep pushing it because we are here to invest in you so that you join those numbers.”

He commended the local government officials for joining the 160 000 graduates of the University of the Witwatersrand.

“I gather in some of your classes you began to understand the tensions that arise between administrative staff and political staff, and I think we’re going to start seeing that coming to the fore, if we haven’t already,” Everatt told the graduates.

KwaDukuza council speaker Phumlile Zulu and Thabisile Ndlela share a laugh during graduation proceedings.

“I’m hoping that, through this course, you’ve found and begun to understand the importance of evidence-based decision-making.

“If we don’t do evidence-based decision-making, we’re really battling, and the National Development Plan and policies will come up to mean absolutely nothing, and I think part of that is committing to long-term policy-making and not being driven by the next elections. I hope the short termism was at least acknowledged and challenged,” he said.

Tau said: “As the SA Local Government Association, we are proud to have partnered with Wits University and the Wits School of Governance to ensure that we build the necessary capability and capacity of both our political and technical representatives in the sector to improve the performance in the sector.”

As each graduate took their turn on the stage – to applause, ululations and with fists in the air – they celebrated each other with the help of their friends and families, who filled the other half of the room.

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