A professional, efficient and effective public service is key to a government’s ability to deliver on its mandate. That’s why South Africa’s constitution requires that the public service be institutionalised as a profession. Appointments must be based on merit and public servants are supposed to be honest, neutral and fair.
Such a public service is a distinctive feature of modern democracy. It means the government bureaucracy is not tied to an incumbent political party. It remains in place no matter which party is in power, and is non-partisan. Administration can continue when political power changes hands.
A professional public service optimises state efficiency by embracing meritocracy.
This means employing only the brightest, best qualified and most competent personnel, with a strong ethical orientation. It requires that civil servants perform their duties with diligence, care and empathy.
South Africa’s constitution is emphatic about this. It even establishes the Public Service Commission as the custodian of professionalism.
There shall be an efficient, non-partisan, career-oriented public service broadly representative of the South African community functioning on a basis of fairness and which shall serve all members of the public in an unbiased and impartial manner…
Almost 30 years into democracy, the country hasn’t got there yet.
Two key initiatives to build state capability through professionalisation of the public service are under way. One is the Public Service Act Amendment Bill, which is before parliament. The other is the draft Public Service Commission Bill, which is yet to be tabled.
The Public Service Amendment Bill devolves administrative powers to the directors-general, who are the heads of government departments. The powers apply to the human resources management and organisation of their departments. The bill aligns these powers with the directors-general’s financial responsibilities outlined in the Public Finance Management Act.
The Public Service Act, which this bill seeks to amend, assigns the administrative powers to the ministers. Yet the Public Finance Management Act places the management of public finances on the directors-general.
These contradictions cause conflicts between ministers and directors-general. The bill seeks to end these.
The Public Service Commission Bill extends the commission’s mandate to cover local government as well as national and provincial public entities covered by the Public Finance Management Act.
These bills are long overdue. They will give effect to a framework that was gazetted in 2020 for public comment, and has benefited from wide consultation.
The framework should not be allowed to fall away. It seeks to follow through with the intentions of the constitution and the 2012 National Development Plan. The plan is the country’s long-range blueprint for socioeconomic transformation.
At the end of apartheid in 1994, the public service was bloated and inefficient. The bureaucracy had to be dismantled to mirror the country’s demographics. That basically meant appointing more black people to key positions.
This was also important to avoid the sabotage of the democratic project by apartheid-era officialdom, which the governing African National Congress (ANC) inherited.
But the need to transform was misapplied in a way that hampered efforts to make professionalism and meritocracy the guiding norms for a career public service. Without them, transformation became insidious. This was especially so during former president Jacob Zuma’s state capture era (May 2009-February 2018).
In practice, the terms of directors-general, who are the administrative heads of government departments, are tied to those of ministers, who are their political heads. The bureaucrats are almost always replaced when a new minister is appointed or if there are conflicts between them.
Despite all this, the post-apartheid state has spawned pockets of excellence in institutional capability. Key among these is the South African Revenue Service. Its success at professionalisation, as evidenced by regularly beating revenue collection targets, became a Harvard University case study. It was also cited by the World Bank for its lessons on institutional reforms and public sector governance.
The agency attracted top talent. Professionalism and integrity became the fundamentals of its institution. This was possible as it was given autonomy from the public sector bargaining forum. It could negotiate wages with employees directly.
In 2012, the government adopted the National Development Plan. It underscored the need to make the public service professional.
In 2014, the constitution’s prescription of the values and principles governing public administration were written into legislation – the Public Administration Management Act.
The Public Service Act Amendment Bill and the Public Service Commission Bill are key to giving effect to the government’s efforts to institutionalise professionalisation of the public service.
These critically important interventions are yet to be concluded and signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Building state capacity
Reeling from the aftermath of COVID, coupled with the energy crisis, and amid the surging socioeconomic challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality, it has never been more urgent to build state capacity.
The amendment bills need to be expedited. They are important to put the national framework in place for the professionalisation of the public service. Some of the framework’s proposals do not require legislative amendments, new policies, regulations, or ministerial directives.
Of critical importance, the framework proposes ditching deployment practices – placing party loyalists in key government positions. These practices served their purpose in the earlier days of democracy.
As the late anti-apartheid activist and economist Ben Turok said:
public servants should be employed, not deployed… they should have security of tenure, and… the public service should be independent and not subject to the whims of individual politicians.