Meritocracy or cadre deployment, how should RSA appoint its state leaders ?

President Cyril Ramaphosa. File photo.

Following the announcement of the shortlisted candidates for the National Youth Development Agency’s Board, much discussion has been sparked regarding the process of appointing people for strategic roles in the state. Of course, this is not a new debate. Many have expressed their views about this thing called “cadre deployment. Similarly, I have fallen for the temptation of opining on this issue despite my prior resolve to remain as silent as the lips of Memnon in The Language of Ruins.

About the NYDA process, in particular, I have to state it from the onset that I unreservedly support all the young people who were shortlisted and that I have full confidence in the wisdom of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee. What I want to deal with is whether there is anything wrong with cadre deployment in itself, in how it has been implemented and whether meritocracy and cadre deployment are mutually exclusive as others have sought to present them.

Defined in the simplest terms, cadre deployment refers to a process through which political parties in a democracy give effect to their policies and objectives by preferring functionaries who subscribe to the same values. In South Africa, there is a tendency of associating this practice with only the African National Congress. 

I must point out that all political parties follow this practice where they govern. It would be disingenuous for any political party to fill state entities and government with people who will not deliver on its programme and mandate as given by the electorate. Is the policy on its problems in my view? No. Is there space for improvement in how it gets to be implemented? Absolutely.

In the South African political discourse, there has been a tendency to characterise cadre deployment as an opposite of meritocracy. In  The Paradox of Meritocracy In Organisations, Castilla and Bernard define meritocracy as a social system in which advancement in society is based on an individual’s capabilities and merits rather than based on family, wealth, or social background. 

This is a definition consistent with that of Cambridge University, and it is a definition I want to adopt to drive my point. From this formulation alone, it is clear that the antonym of meritocracy is closer to nepotism than to cadre deployment. Nepotism is when people are deployed and promoted based on kinship. 

In contrast, cadre deployment is about fielding those who, in addition to possessing relevant skills, also identify with the political and developmental outlook of the party. It is therefore mischievous and opportunistic for opposition parties and other commentators to continue giving an impression that the two concepts are mutually exclusive, but also that there is something inherently dubious with cadre deployment.

Do I want people to be employed and deployed based on merit? Yes, I do. However, I think there has to be a unique understanding of what the word merit means in South Africa due to our unique history and our agenda of reconstruction, growth and development. 

Merit in South Africa has to be seen as some fusion of academic and technical capacity as well as ideological clarity and suitability for the current political objectives. Let us be frank with one another: There is no point in filling very sensitive state roles with highly competent individuals who do not support transformation, for example. There is equally, not much to be gained from deploying those who can recite the Freedom Charter in their sleep but have no clue what should be done to prudently manage finances of municipalities, for instance.

The ANC 53rd National Conference resolved that we should select and deploy capable leaders and public representatives, with integrity, capacity, the correct orientation and expertise to drive and implement our programme. 

This is not just about academic qualifications. The political orientation of the public sector labour force is very crucial in a developmental state. My view is that there are at least enough skills in the country to drive the developmental state’s agenda. We have produced many capable young people who can be deployed to the most senior and most sensitive roles. Still, the manner in which we continue to apply cadre deployment at times does not prioritise requisite skills and competence. 

There is an impression that we continue to deploy unsuitable people, especially in municipalities which, according to the latest Auditor General’s report has performed very dismally and cannot manage their finances. So the challenge is in how this policy is being implemented and not that it is inherently abhorrent.

There is a need to apply the cadre deployment policy in a manner that does not undermine technical competence, accountability of state institutions, separation of powers between state organs as well as between the state and the party, performance of state institutions and the relative autonomy of the state bureaucracy. 

Furthermore, there has to be a conscious effort to provide a fair opportunity to all other South Africans outside the party political space who have skills and expertise to contribute. Finally, we should guard against the cadre policy being used to facilitate nepotism, tribalism, favouritism and to consolidate internal power blocs through the dispensation of patronage. 

If those entrusted with processes can stick to the directives of the ANC’s resolutions on this matter, we will not have a window open for both legitimate and opportunistic criticism.

Kgotso Maja is a socio-economic development activist, MBA Candidate, member of the Gauteng’s ANC Economic Transformation Subcommittee and he writes here in a personal capacity.