Is fundamental civil service change imminent in South Africa?

By on 02/10/2023 | Updated on 02/10/2023
A panoramic photograph of The Union Buildings that form the official seat of the South African Government at sunrise.
A panoramic photograph of The Union Buildings that form the official seat of the South African Government at sunrise. Photo by Paul Saad, under Creative Commons license

South Africa could be on the brink of civil service reforms set to mirror those of Northcote–Trevelyan and the Pendleton Act. Ivor Chipkin, the director of the New South Institute, details the background to the possible changes – and considers whether they will actually happen

On the 13th and 14th of July, the Office of the Public Service Commission, the National School of Government, the Department of Public Service and Administration and the United Nations Development Programme met to discuss how to professionalise the South African public service. The auditor general was there and the presidency was represented too. The event felt historic.

Historians tend not to like journalists. I had a history professor who, if one handed in a piece of work that he thought was inferior, would grumble ‘journalism’. The reason, partly, lies in their respective relations to time. Historians deal in long-term trends, which unfold over decades and even centuries. Journalists count in hours and days.

The problem in South Africa is the difference between historical time and journalistic time. From the perspective of the day to day, South Africa is in crisis, a moribund economy, mass unemployment, shocking poverty both in absolute terms and in relative terms, ongoing electricity outages and, increasingly, water outages too. All of this is compounded by a venal political class unable to solve even basic policy problems. In journalistic years, 30 years is a very long time, like it is for an individual lifetime.

The view from historical time offers a different perspective. Over the last 30 years South Africa has become a democracy, entered a phase of state building and consolidation, experienced growth, became disillusioned with constitutionalism and flirted with authoritarianism. We are now in the interregnum, where the morbid symptoms of the recent past are still present but the new has not yet been born. There are signs, however, that the country is in labour.

The Public Service Commission retreat on professionalising the public service is not the kind of event that attracts much interest. Yet it should, because whether current plans succeed, or fail will shape the trajectory of South Africa for a very long time.

Read more: Learning from global experiences: transforming public administration through senior civil service reforms

At the heart of many of South Africa’s current problems are institutional failures borne not primarily of the personalities and character that run them (good and honest vs bad and corrupt), but of the way that they have been designed and structured. Post-apartheid public administrations are overly politicised in a very specific way. The Public Service Act grants politicians wide discretion in operational decisions in state organs and in the recruitment of public servants. The situation is even worse at local government level where the politicians are the administrators. Cadre deployment is possible because the law allows politicians to appoint officials.

In the first decade of democracy, such political control was used to build effective and capable institutions, in the second it was used to capture, repurpose and ultimately weaken them.

There are concrete plans on the table to rebalance power relations between politicians and public officials. In the first place, the Public Service Amendment Act will reduce the discretion of politicians to recruit staff and to interfere in operational matters. It will give departmental officials more space to hire the kinds of people that they believe will get the job done and to come up with workable plans to move from plan to action.

Secondly, a new professionalisation framework will set limits on who can become a public servant (there will be a pre-entry test) and impose stricter requirements for specialist roles and for senior managers. In the metaphor of the National School of Government, we want pilots in the cockpit not general managers. Hopefully, it will be accompanied by measures to fire delinquent or corrupt officials more easily.

These are fundamental reforms that will go a long way to build capable public institutions than can provide basic services (water, electricity, ID books) and deliver on large economic projects.

Read more: A tale of two countries: why has state capture seen China boom and South Africa bust?

How to make sure change happens this time

As important as these developments are, we have been on the edge of progressive change before. In 2008 the Department of Public Service and Administration developed the Public Administration Management Bill, which would have replaced the Public Service Act. It is an excellent piece of legislation that had it been passed would have moved South Africa in the right direction. It was passed in only a truncated form. The hallmark of the Zuma years, indeed, the defining characteristic of state capture, was not corruption, but of halting and reversing such momentum. Radical Economic Transformation, it turned out, was a reactionary politics that favoured patrimonialism.

The political landscape has now changed. The ANC’s poor performance in government has caught up with it. Political meddling in recruitment and operations weakened and in some cased wrecked state organs, including those vital for poor and working households. The rich and the middle classes have largely been able to self-provision (from private security, to private health, to private education).  Even if the ruling party wins the 2024 election, it will be diminished, and opposition parties and coalitions will likely govern in provinces beyond the Western Cape. It is unlikely that the ruling party will want opposition parties or coalitions to have the kind of influence in government administrations that is has enjoyed. Moreover, the spectre of unstable coalitions having discretion over bureaucratic appointments is frightening for everybody. In other words, the political environment is propitious for change.

Meanwhile, officials in government and in the bureaucracy have been learning and reacting. They have launched several initiatives that if they succeed will be historical. This is why the PSC’s recent retreat felt like an important moment. It even had a whisper of the 1990s, that South Africa was on the verge of something momentous. Civil service reform could be a defining legacy of the Ramaphosa administration.

Opposition to these reforms is currently weak. Resistance is likely to come from the regional political factions that will lose their control of local administrations and even councils. Political appointments in senior management positions will also become insecure if changes go ahead. They will fight to preserve their powers and positions.

Currently, however, they have no compelling arguments to defend the status quo. South African history unfolds very rapidly indeed. It took the United Kingdom until the late 19th century to begin such a process (with the Trevelyan reforms), nearly 200 years after the founding of the state. The United States passed the Pendleton Act in 1883 but only started undoing Tammany Hall politics in the 1920s. Kenya and Zambia are now moving in this direction. Nigeria too is trying to build an autonomous civil service. China established a class of professional administrators during the Qing dynasty in the 17th century, though with antecedents long before that. In a mere 30 years, South Africa is on the cusp of historical change again.

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About Ivor Chipkin

Ivor Chipkin is the executive director of the New South Institute think tank, based in Johannesburg. He was the founder and director of the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) at the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town for ten years before that. In 2017 Chipkin, with several colleagues, wrote and released the Betrayal of the Promise report, a study of state capture that had a huge political impact in South Africa. Chipkin completed his PhD at the Ecole Normale Superieure in France, where he also did his DEA. Chipkin was an Oppenheimer Fellow at Oxford University. He is the author of Do South Africans Exist? (WUP: 2007) and Shadow State: the politics of state capture with Mark Swilling (WUP: 2018). His new book, The Shattered Vessel, is due out in 2023.

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