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

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By Anees Teladia

This article has been divided into two parts. Part one introduces the topic and deals with the progress of South Africa’s public service institutions and corruption levels, how efficiently our public service institutions have been functioning and whether they have been developed appropriately, the question of why public service is in such a questionable state and the question of whether we continue to suffer from the effects of colonisation and Apartheid through the way these periods shaped our public bureaucracy.

Dr Vinothan Naidoo is both a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Studies and the convener of the postgraduate programme in Public Policy and Administration at the University of Cape Town.

For part one, click on the link below…

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

Are the high levels of corruption in South Africa unique?

Not according to Naidoo. The issues of corruption and the common narrative around “state capture” in South Africa imply some unique political crisis, despite the fact that the schemes and webs of corruption and “state capture” are not at all unique. Further, public knowledge of these scandals does in fact place South Africa in a better position than many other countries as it demonstrates a healthy and functioning democracy with effective measures of transparency and accountability, aided by a vibrant civil society.

South African citizens and residents are free to question and investigate these scandals and schemes without fear of prosecution – a right and ability which many in the world are not afforded.

“I don’t think our levels of corruption are unique,” said Naidoo.

“One of the ways of viewing corruption is to distinguish between so-called grand corruption and lower-level corruption – I think on both scores, South Africa is not unique.”

“If you look at the massive, grand corruption scandals which have been rocking Brazil in recent years, there’s no reason to think “state capture” (which is our version) is fundamentally different from that. It’s high level, coordinated, involves top members of the governing political party and it entails a complex, intricate network of theft. So if we call that state capture, we can see it in other countries – not just in Brazil and not just in industrialising countries.
South Africa is hardly unique in terms of the sophisticated political manipulation of whether it be tenders and procurements, kickbacks, complex bribery schemes and so forth. We’re hardly unique there, but we’re also not unique when it comes to pettier corruption, like paying a bribe to a Home Affairs official or a traffic cop. If you look at surveys on how extensive bribery is, the kind of bribery you see in South Africa is not unique compared to what you see in many other countries.”

“There’s a risk that the whole state capture narrative forces us to believe we are unique – but I don’t think on either score, whether it be grand or petty corruption, we are unique.”

Naidoo adds that while these corruption scandals are serious, knowledge of them is a positive sign.

“One of the benefits of knowing how much corruption there is in the country, whether it’s at the state capture or lower levels, is knowing that we’re much better at detecting levels of corruption and that speaks to the fact that we’re more transparent as a country. We have a healthy non-governmental (NGO) sector that watches government like a hawk…
The understanding citizens have of corruption is far better than it ever used to be because we have an open enough society in which organisations (both within government and outside of government) are able and free, without being imprisoned, to ask questions about the problem of corruption… and so on the one hand it’s a negative because we see how pervasive corruption is, but on the other hand fortunately we live in a society in which there are a lot of organisations and people doing a lot of good work, probing. We have outstanding investigative journalists in this country that are able to tell us how serious the problem is,” said Naidoo.

‘Growing pains’ and Corruption

Many Sub-Saharan African countries experienced similar issues post-independence, suffering from post-colonial / post-independence ‘growing pains’.

These were characteristically issues surrounding post-colonial geo-politics (which resulted in political instability), personalised brands of politics, increases in demand for public services being piled onto bureaucracies which were prior to independence not designed nor oriented toward public service of that nature, as well as sluggish economic growth.

When asked how many of these characteristic ‘growing pains’ experienced in Sub-Saharan African countries post-independence could explain the levels of corruption we see in South Africa’s political system, Naidoo explained that during periods of transition from colonial rule to democratic rule, or simply when a governmental system is being transformed, there is an increased risk of corruption due to the sheer amount of “moving parts”.

“Here, we’re talking about a set of historical conditions which were associated with how the public service made the transition from colonial rule to independence. Those periods of transition are by their nature defined by flux. There’s a lot of moving parts. The system of government is being transformed and part of the challenge with that is ‘how do you maintain’. You can’t just eliminate an entire system and infrastructure of government and then rebuild it. So in a sense, the transition means you have to try to maintain existing levels of governmental activity while you shift to a very different model.

When that happens, there’s a lot of risk for corruption, mismanagement and fraud because things are moving so quickly. It’s difficult to keep a clear focus on what government is doing because it’s in flux. When you’ve got confusion during a period of rapid transition, it always creates opportunities for nefarious activity,” said Naidoo.

“In South Africa it’s what happened in the 1990’s…There are government reports that highlighted how the movement from the old provincial system to the new, created considerable opportunities for corruption, where record keeping, financial management and the number of people you have on staff, all those things were in flux. There’s a lot of opportunity for manipulation and enrichment.”

“I see what happened in South Africa in the 1990’s – particularly at a provincial level – as mirrored by what would’ve happened in many other African countries in those first years of independence. A whole new system was being made and the political system was being redesigned, which created opportunities for new elites.”

Are those who have been disadvantaged by the legacy of Apartheid and colonialism entitled to some degree of self-enrichment through state corruption? Are those disadvantaged individuals more likely to be corrupt due to some heightened sense of self-interest?

Comments made which suggest that corrupt officials who have been previously disadvantaged are entitled to self-enrichment or are at the very least understandably have a heightened sense of self-interest and inclination to engage in corrupt activity, are problematic to say the least.

Despite South Africa’s history of Apartheid and the pre-Apartheid colonial rule, corruption cannot be explained nor linked in such a manner, to race.

“I don’t agree that corruption can be racialised in that manner. It comes down to the positionality of individuals, i.e. the way they sit within a political party that is able to access and manage the state. That’s where you get motives driving people that can either use that access to enrich themselves or use the levers and the resources of the state to improve livelihoods on a wide scale, particularly to improve the living conditions of black South Africans who were disproportionately deprived of public services historically,” said Naidoo.

“So, what motivates corruption? I can’t see any racial element to it at all. It comes down to where an individual is in terms of their access to the state and what they choose to do in that moment…I don’t think that can be linked to race.”

Naidoo then added that there have been sufficient examples within the ANC to illustrate his point.

“I think that there is a large enough number of people within the ANC who would not have engaged in the kind of state capture that we saw…”

What is the way forward for our public service?

“I think the principle has to be that we need to professionalise our public service,” said Naidoo.

“Now, how do we do that?

Think about how we recruit officials, particularly at the highest levels – the key decision makers in government departments. They are not the biggest chunk of the public service but they’re certainly the most influential. We need to try to reduce the level of political interference in decisions about who those people are. I’ve argued that it’s probably not likely and realistic for us to depoliticise appointments because that then means we have a public service that could potentially obstruct and refuse to implement the policy agenda of the government, which is equally dangerous. We don’t want that…but we can reduce the level of political interference regarding who gets to serve in those senior positions.

We need to move to a different system of recruiting and appointing officials, a system which limits the direct involvement of politicians.”

“We need to create stability at the top.”

“One way of doing that might be to say: lets appoint the best people to do the job and limit the level of political involvement in choosing these people. Or, at least we can make the process more transparent so it’s not just up to a minister, but so that it’s more of a committee system that’s open and transparent, e.g. this is how we appointed this individual and this is how we can show they have the requisite skills to head a department.”

Naidoo also suggests that we have more security of tenure in these state-official positions, which could boost the honesty and integrity of the work done by officials and improve the advising of our state and public service policy.

“We get rid of the contract and we give that person [the high-level bureaucrat] security of tenure. We give them job security so they know that when they make decisions a politician doesn’t like, the politician can’t just get rid of them overnight…”

“So, there are some things we can do regarding how we recruit and appoint officials, creating more stability and ensuring there’s greater professionalism,” said Naidoo.

He also proposed a reduction in the excessive layers of red tape in our public service functioning and that the public service allow skilled, competent managers the freedom to carry out mandates and make decisions.

“We need to reduce the level of red tape constraints on decision making…genuinely giving managers we can trust some discretion to make rapid decisions. I think if we do that, it can unlock service delivery and reduce the lag-time in getting services out.”

“If we can put officials that are trustworthy in place, there’s no reason we can’t trust them to make good decisions without throwing a lot of red tape on them,” said Naidoo.

“A lot of the time bureaucracy does get in the way.”

The need for throughput

There is a concerning disconnect between tertiary institutions and the government where recruitment is concerned.

It is no secret that South Africa faces a youth and graduate unemployment crisis, which is leading to both a loss of valuable skills in our country and the underutilisation of skills in our economy and political system.

This disconnect also clearly reflects the lack of professionalisation within the public service.

“I teach masters, PHD and undergraduate students in Public Policy and Administration and they ask me all the time, ‘what can I use with this degree?’,” said Naidoo.

“I say to them ‘one of the things you can do is be a senior decision maker in government’ but then I look at how politicised our bureaucracy is and I have to say ‘…if you don’t know someone on the inside, you’re not going to get that job…’

It’s disheartening for me to say that.”

“What I’d like to see is some sort of graduate scheme – some sort of internship training pathway…”

“We’ve got a graduate unemployment problem and part of the reason is that when we have a politicised civil service, it creates barriers for people with qualifications to get into positions. We need to create a pathway for graduates.”

Naidoo stressed that linking our education system to government, to create an avenue for throughput, would provide prospective public service professionals with a realistic prospect for employment in the public service and would channel the skills produced at the tertiary level appropriately.

“I think we need to give students who are interested in studying government and the public service a realistic prospect that once they have completed their education they can be employed in the public service and use their skills –  that it won’t matter whether they’re aligned with the Democratic Alliance or the ANC.”

“That’s part of the way we could professionalise the public service – by linking our education system (particularly at a tertiary level) to create a pathway for students to take the skills they learn from the tertiary system into the public sphere,” said Naidoo.





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