The troubles at the Treasury and SARS are a microcosm of the steady hollowing out of state institutions over the past few years. Professor Mills Soko explains the causes and consequences…
The decision by National Treasury director general, Lungisa Fuzile, to quit his job at the end of this month brings to an end the career of one of South Africa’s distinguished civil servants.
It also raises fresh questions about the future of the country’s public service: the resignation comes after a reported exodus of skills and talent at the South African Revenue Service (SARS). In light of the dismissal by President Jacob Zuma of the Treasury’s political heads Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas, there has been speculation that a similar mass emigration of skills is imminent at the Treasury.
Like the Treasury, SARS has prided itself on its deserved reputation as a competent state agency staffed by highly skilled and dedicated employees.
The troubles at the Treasury and SARS are a microcosm of the steady hollowing out of state institutions over the past few years. This has undermined the ability of the South African state to fulfil its mandate, not least provide reliable, efficient and effective social services.
The post-1994 democratic transition in South Africa brought with it expectations that there would be huge improvements in service provision for all South Africans. The reality, however, has been markedly different.
Although there has been major progress in terms of expanding access to basic services – from electricity to water and sanitation – the number of reported incidents of service delivery failures across the country remains unacceptably high.
This, coupled with skills deficiencies within the bureaucracy and widespread reports of corruption in government departments, has led to an erosion of confidence in the public service.
Poor governance and corruption
Service delivery failures have been most pronounced at local government level. Underperforming municipalities are commonplace, with many of them continually failing to meet basic service delivery standards. This has prompted a wave of service delivery protests in recent years by both poor and wealthy South Africans alike.
The extent of public disenchantment at local government has been reflected in a number of cases in which communities have taken local municipalities to court over perceived service delivery failures. In many of those cases, the courts have ruled in favour of the disgruntled communities. Alarmingly, however, even in these cases some municipalities have failed to comply with court orders to improve public services.
Moreover, across all three spheres of government, there have been numerous reports of poor governance and corruption. Inefficient, inappropriate and wasteful expenditure of taxpayers’ money has been rife. Likewise, public money has been siphoned into the coffers of certain government officials.
Reports of conflicts of interest involving public officials, including President Zuma, have been commonplace. There has also been evidence of double standards in the application of the law to government officials and members of the public. In one infamous example, President Zuma’s former financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for bribery and corruption, but later released on a ‘presidential pardon’. Zuma was the co-accused in this case, but all charges against him were dropped.
Huge cost to taxpayers and poorest of poor
All of these incidents have come at a huge cost to South African taxpayers, including the poorest of the poor, as service provision has not been prioritised. This goes against the key tenets of our Constitution.
Service delivery failures, poor governance and corruption have occurred against the backdrop of growing politicisation of the public service. This has been exemplified by the deployment of public service personnel on the basis of party political incentives and not merit principles.
Arguments pointing to the politicisation of the public service are supported by empirical evidence. A study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which assessed the level of political involvement in the appointment of senior officials, found that the involvement of elected officials in the appointment of senior officials in South Africa was high by international standards.
Studies have also shown that political factors are a key determinant of the career prospects of public servants in South Africa. In this respect, political factors play an influential role in governing promotions, transfers and performance assessments involving government officials.
The politicisation of the public service has been driven by the ANC’s strategy to install party members in administrative offices and control top government appointments. It has also been motivated by a desire to exercise institutional control, especially control over government policy.
This politicisation has had detrimental effects in the form of increased clientelism, cronyism and corruption within the South African public service. It has also eroded technical knowledge, skills and accountability among public servants.
Performance management systems fail
Performance management systems implemented by the ANC government have generally not led to significant improvements in accountability. The clearest weakness in this respect has been that the government’s performance management systems are not aligned to integrated service delivery programmes.
This has been complicated by the fact that all performance monitoring mechanisms focus on compliance, rather than on well-articulated and integrated value creation processes.
In addition, research by the Public Service Commission has revealed that many of the national and provincial departments of health and of public works do not provide job descriptions for advertised posts and do not comply fully with requirements related to job evaluations.
Also, there has also been a problem of excessive mobility within the public service, with reported cases of officials moving from junior to senior positions without adequate assessment of their readiness.
Overall, this evidence suggests that skills have been underemphasised in the appointment and promotion of public servants in South Africa. It makes a mockery of the claims by the ANC government that is committed to building a professional and capable state.
* Professor Mills Soko is the director of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town.