Political influence or merit-based appointments? How South Africa can resolve the tension over top public service jobs

By on 12/04/2023 | Updated on 12/04/2023
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 is in the midst of revisiting how public service appointments can be made. Ivor Chipkin and Rafael Leite from the New South Institute take a look at why a review is needed, and what the options for change might be

Within South African public administration, the battle between political discretion to appoint public servants and merit-based appointments is a long-term one. The country has struggled to reconcilie these tensions and to reshape the public sector into a capable and effective institution, despite the constitutional mechanisms and a jurisprudence that has begun to reduce the overwhelming influence of politicians in departmental operational matters.

The South African constitution, in its quest to dismantle the oppressive legacy of Apartheid, granted broad powers to the incumbent administration to transform the state apparatus. While well-intentioned, this approach blurred the lines between politics and administration, leaving senior appointments vulnerable to the whims of politicians. Although the constitution includes safeguards and counter-majoritarian institutions, such as Chapter 9 Institutions like independent commissions, these measures have failed to maintain the relative autonomy of political and administrative offices.

In South Africa today, the African National Congress’s ‘cadre deployment’ policy has attracted the lion’s share of critical attention. The organisation has been heavily criticised, most recently by the Judicial Inquiry into State Capture, for gaming the appointment process by preselecting candidates for key state positions. Cadre deployment, however, is only really a symptom rather than a cause. What makes it possible for the ANC to manipulate the recruitment process in the first place is that it is already highly politicised by design.

Read more: Building blocks: lessons from the global south on reforming the architecture of government

In this regard, the New South Institute has recently launched a report, Personalising and De-personalising Power, which examines the legislative and regulatory rules for the appointment of senior civil servants in key state intuitions: the National Treasury, for example, and the commissioner of police or chief of intelligence or the head of the prosecuting authority. What we found, astonishingly, is that in almost every one of these situations, there are hardly any minimum requirements. Moreover, all such appointments are either at the discretion of the president or a relevant minister. In other words, the system of recruiting senior civil servants provides maximum discretion to the executive authority. This is why cadre deployment is so effective and so debilitating. If the ANC deployment committee instructs a minister to appoint a specific candidate, he or she has the legal discretion to do so.

An obvious remedy to this situation would be to strengthen what is commonly referred to in the US as the merit protection system: introducing stricter requirements for the appointment of senior managers, professionalising recruitment and candidate evaluation processes, setting up an independent commission to oversee appointment procedures, and so on. Nowhere in the world has the introduction of such a system been free from pressure or mistakes in implementation. It could not be otherwise in South Africa. What is required, apart from the necessary legal reforms, is an implementation strategy well grounded in the political economy of reform.

The issue is that public debate in South Africa tends to focus too much on policy formulation, usually at the expense of policy implementation. There is a growing sense in the country that there needs to be a better distinction between administrative and political office, and the government has indicated that it is interested in implementing reforms in this direction. However, there is little clarity on how to reform, or how to sustain reform over the long term.

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

Current proposals in South Africa moot a reinvigorated Public Service Commission to vet applications, together with a National School of Government to provide a suitable pipeline of candidates. Given South Africa’s recent history of state capture and of the hollowing out of many public institutions, there is concern that such a centralised scheme would be ripe for political capture. Moreover, these proposals don’t adequately face up to the fact of high administrative decentralisation in the country. Is it realistic to expect provincial and regional power-brokers to give up their discretion in appointments? It is not, which is why current policy proposals don’t adequately anticipate the kind of resistance and opposition these reforms are likely to generate.

So, what other options are there?

In the Public Administration Management Act, for example, the Department of Public Service and Administration ingeniously traced a path to reform that both satisfied difficult constitutional conditions and also recognised the highly devolved and decentralised character of governance in South Africa. Like the French system, it offered to set norms and standards for all public administrations in respect of ethics, salaries and appointments, creating a national office to monitor their implementation, and to oversee offices that were complying with them. In this way, the law offered to respect the constitutional autonomy of local governments, for example, to run their own affairs, including in making their own appointments, while also disciplining these processes within a standardised framework. This breakthrough seems to have been forgotten and current proposals represent a setback.

To effectively resolve the contradictions that have weakened South Africa’s public administration system, it is crucial to develop a critical and comparative perspective on policy implementation, while initiating reforms that build confidence in change itself. Recognising that dismantling patrimonialism and promoting meritocracy requires a multifaceted approach. South Africa must invest in research, time and political will to develop tailored, context-sensitive strategies that draw on the experiences of countries with similar levels of development and bureaucratic maturity. The struggle to professionalise public administration in South Africa has become an existential one for the country. The solution may have already been found; it is a matter now of rallying forces in favour of its implementation.

Ivor Chipkin is the director of the New South Institute. Rafael Leite is a research fellow at the New South Institute, based in the São Paulo office.

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About Rafael Leite and Ivor Chipkin

Rafael Leite is a research fellow, and Ivor Chipkin is the executive director of the New South Institute think tank.

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