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PART ONE: Corruption and public service – SA in crisis?

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By Anees Teladia

South Africans seem to be tired of hearing that the legacy of Apartheid is still partly to blame for a lack of efficient service delivery, economic growth and economic and social development. But is this apathetic attitude which disregards the effects of the “long past” Apartheid a rational stance to take, or is it an indication of an uninformed opinion?

The plague of corruption and mismanagement of resources in the South African public service continues to harm all those who rely on these services, both directly and indirectly. Most ordinary citizens in South Africa are acutely aware of the situation we face regarding corruption levels – both in the public and private sector. Public bureaucratic structures such as the institutions responsible for day-to-day service delivery and governance have undoubtedly struggled to maintain efficiency and integrity in South Africa. But what is the reason behind this struggle? Is Apartheid STILL to blame? Why are we suffering through so many scandals of corruption? Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

According to Afrobarometer, a non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on issues surrounding democracy, governance and economic conditions among other issues, public perception in South Africa was mostly of the opinion that the general level of corruption in the country had “Increased a lot” over the last year, during the period 2017-2018.

As damning as this sounds, however, the number of respondents who felt that the level had “Increased a lot” during the survey round of 2017-2018 was significantly lower than in the previous round of the survey, held during the 2014-2015 period.

Dr Vinothan Naidoo, a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Studies and convener of the postgraduate programme in Public Policy and Administration at the University of Cape Town, has indicated that although counterintuitive, much of what we see as a crisis of corruption and “state capture” can also be indicative of a healthy and functioning democracy.

Unpacking the issue with VOC News, Naidoo provided clarity on the state of our public service and addressed many common concerns.

How is South Africa progressing with development (in relation to our public service institutions and our levels of corruption)?

Naidoo insists that while a lot has been achieved over the course of our 25-year democracy in South Africa, there remains much to be done. He mentioned a few areas where progress has been made but also highlighted the key failings in our development.

“That’s a long story but it’s a story that has to start from 1994 when political change brought quite dramatic changes to how our public service works. By that stage [1994], public service was racially and in terms of gender, unrepresentative, there were very skewed service delivery patterns based on race and public service delivery patterns and institutions were spatially fragmented. We inherited a public service that was designed to map the segregation of Apartheid. It has taken many years to fundamentally redesign how the public service works,” said Naidoo.

“There have been dramatic changes in racial and gender representation, particularly at higher levels in the public service. If you think about the way our political system has been redesigned, with nine provinces and one single public service at a national level rather than a public service broken up on the basis of race, a lot has been achieved in 25 years…
But as most people would relate to, the biggest challenge seems to be ‘how do we get our public service to implement and execute policies more effectively,’ because there continues to be a very uneven service delivery pattern.”

“Communities that were neglected in the past are not finding the public service very responsive – especially in terms of rolling out socio-economic services such health, education, water and sanitation. Those basic services are still distributed in a very uneven way. So, this has raised questions around what kinds of skills our officials have, their capacity and their levels of competence…”

“To what extent have we not promoted a professional public service in contrast to a public service that is staffed mainly by officials that are aligned with a particular political party?”

Are our public service institutions functioning effectively and efficiently? Have they been developed appropriately?

The issue of slow decision-making due to overpoliticisation, under-professionalisation and excessive red tape in the public service has contributed to an inefficient public service. Our public service institutions have therefore not been developed appropriately, despite the efforts of government to improve in this regard.

“No. it’s a perennial problem – the problem of red tape. Too many rules and layers of reporting make decision-making in our public service very slow…too many signatures are needed to sign off on a simple document,” said Naidoo.

“Compounding that kind of red tape culture in a lot of our institutions, is this problem of politicisation. When we have a combination of too much red tape with insufficient professionalism – i.e. where a lot of officials in higher levels are there as political appointments and who move around a lot depending on where the party wants to put them – that creates a very dysfunctional set of decision making processes where there isn’t follow-through (depending on what the ministers and political principals want to do). Their preferences might shift and it creates instability at the level of management because we don’t have civil servants there that are willing to challenge the decision of politicians.”

“Depending on how the political winds shift, it creates a lot of instability in terms of decision-making… and making that worse is the problem of red tape…

Too many regulations, rules and procedures creating several steps before a decision can be finalised.”

Naidoo then offered a solution to this continuing problem.

“I think the solution to that, is trying to empower managers to take decisions – where they’re less encumbered by excessive rules and we trust the public service managers to make good decisions based on what they know…but you can only do that  if you have a professional public service, i.e. if you have a managerial core which is staffed by people who don’t feel they are beholden to a party, but rather feel they can build a career in public service and that they’re in those public service positions because of what they know and their training.”

“That’s where we need to get to,” said Naidoo.

Why is public service in South Africa in such a questionable state?

Once again, the issue of a lack of professionalisation of the public service comes to the fore. Over-politicisation of the public service has direct effects on public service efficiency and integrity, but the state of our public service is nothing new to South Africa. Naidoo indicates that while we have not taken the matter of professionalisation forward earnestly, it is not appropriate to suggest that it is a problem that is new to South Africa. Those who claim that the Apartheid government – and by extension public service – was “better” and more professional than the new government, are making bold claims.

“I don’t think we’ve taken professionalising the public service seriously…[however] this isn’t just an ANC (African National Congress) problem or a problem which began in 1994. The problem existed under the National Party’s Apartheid government as well. The bureaucracy was heavily politicised – it was designed to be an obedient servant to whatever the dominant party wanted it to do. It was staffed by people steeped in the ideology of the dominant parties of the time and that undermined the professional credibility and integrity of the public service.”

“That situation largely carried on post-1994,” said Naidoo.

However, despite the persistent lack of professionalisation in the public service, it is not accurate to suggest that there haven’t been attempts and efforts at improving the system or the skills of officials therein. The primary concern, for Naidoo, remains the over-politicisation.

“Not that there weren’t efforts to improve training and induction into the system, providing opportunities for public servants to acquire knowledge and skills, but we’ve continued on with the system in which public servants at the highest levels feel beholden to the dominant party. The public service has a duty to implement the policies of the government of the day. That can’t change and it’s like that the world over. You cannot have an independent public service – that’s also dangerous…

But you can have a public service that feels sufficiently insulated from a political party, where it can offer professional advice to politicians without feeling threatened or without feeling that it [the public service institution/official] has to manipulate the advice to satisfy what the party wants.”

“If you look at the NDP (National Development Plan) there are a number of good ideas about how to professionalise the public service – but that hasn’t been implemented,” said Naidoo.

“Those measures need to be taken seriously in terms of how we recruit public servants and what criteria we use, how we minimise political interference in the selection of officials, creating a special office within government to oversee and coordinate the work of officials – an office which is not political – like a Chief Civil Servant office and fixing the problematic relationship that has existed between ministers and Heads of Departments.”

“So it goes back to professionalism.”

Are we still suffering from the effects of colonisation and Apartheid? Is that what has primarily shaped our public service structure?

“Maybe in a general way,” said Naidoo.

“Certainly our public service, historically, was shaped by colonial rule – which was very hierarchical and centralised and which didn’t give officials much room to be creative or provide for much discretion and autonomy… it was very ‘top-down’, but that isn’t necessarily a fundamental characteristic of colonialism.”

“You could say it’s a fundamental problem with bureaucracy as a whole. It [bureaucracy] is a very top-down hierarchical model which many countries use, i.e. going back to this Weberian Model which has its benefits…there has to be a system of accountability to prevent an abuse of power. There are benefits to a system like that [the Weberian Model of bureaucracy] but there are also constraints.”

“The excessive layers of accountability can actually slow down how responsive our institutions are…[however] that’s not by nature, colonial.”

Essentially, while there are elements of colonial rule which have in a general way shaped our public bureaucratic structure, colonialism and Apartheid rule are not entirely responsible for the shaping of, and the flaws in, the public service. The problem resides in our failure to adopt more efficient bureaucratic cultures and designs.

“I think the culture of bureaucracy we’ve inherited has carried on, despite efforts in the 1990’s to promote a managerial, private sector model of running our public service. This model was meant to give officials more flexibility and discretion but it really hasn’t taken root in SA despite all the rhetoric,” said Naidoo.

“So no, I don’t think its colonial inheritance as much as a more entrenched bureaucratic culture – that many countries suffer from – which has simply carried on.”


This article has been divided into two parts. Part two situates South Africa’s corruption levels within a global and continental context – addressing concerns of state capture being a unique phenomenon to South Africa – and highlights the patterns of post-colonial / post-independence governmental and public service development that have contributed to South Africa’s corruption. Part two of the article also deals with the question of whether, due to our racially divisive, oppressive and discriminatory past, some disadvantaged individuals might have a greater inclination to be corrupt as well as whether they are in fact entitled to such self-enrichment.

Finally, the last section of part two maps the way forward for our public service and includes a suggestion of “throughput” which would arguably greatly contribute to improved professionalism in the public bureaucracy.

For part two, click on the link below…

PART TWO: Corruption and public service – SA in crisis?

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