Reform of the public service in South Africa

Thousands of people took part in the Mandela Remembrance Walk and Run to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Jacques Naude African News Agency (ANA)

In mature democratic states, like those of Western Europe and North America, the members of the public administration serve the interest of the people and the country concerned regardless of what party in is power. They are professional, honest and competent and are the servants of the people and not essentially the party that is in power at any particular time. These come and go in accordance with the will of the electorate. Over decades they have built up a reputation for professional excellence and integrity. This contributes to the operation of sound administration for the benefit of the whole country and its people.

With the inception of the democratic era in South Africa as a nation we aspired to such a public administration taking into account our own particular needs as a fledgling democracy, such as the pernicious legacy of institutionalised discrimination. With this noble purpose in mind our founding fathers provided that our Constitution requires the promotion of mature governance by the democratic values and principles listed in section 195(1) as follows:

(a)  A high standard of professional ethics;

(b)  Efficient and effective use of resources

(c)  Public administration must be development oriented;

(d)  Services must be provided impartially, fairly, equitably and without bias;

(e)  The people’s needs must be responded to and members of the public must be encouraged to participate in policy making;

(f)  Policy making must be accountable;

(g) Transparency must be fostered by providing the public with timely, accessible and accurate information;

(h) Good human resource management and career development practices to maximise human potential must be cultivated; and 

(i)   Public administration must be broadly representative of the South African people with employment and personnel practices based on ability. Objectivity, fairness, and the need to redress the imbalances of the past to achieve broad representation.

The above principles continue to inform an ongoing process of reconstruction and development after the devastating years of institutionalised discrimination of the pre-democratic era. Transformation was and is essential to ensure that the public service is compatible with a democratic non-racial society. It is important to note that section 195(1) (f) and 195 (1) (g) are a ‘constitutional imperative’. What is required by section 195(1) can be encapsulated as requiring, inter alia, ethical conduct and professionalism on behalf of the members of the public service. 

Affirmative action is required to redress the serious imbalances of past disadvantage, in accordance respectively with sections 9 and 195 (1) (i) and of the Constitution. Although the Constitution gives a certain preference to those who were previously disadvantaged, it most certainly does not furnish a carte blanche for unrestrained Africanisation instead of non-racialism. The latter is a fundamental value, set out specifically in section 1 of the Constitution. The wholescale cadre deployment of the kind that has been embraced by the ANC government under the discredited Zuma administration is manifestly unconstitutional according to a judgement in Eastern Cape High Court in Mlokoti v District Amatola Municipality.

Unfortunately, especially under the Zuma administration, non-racialism, even according to President Ramaphosa, was largely abandoned by the ANC administration. Consequently, aggressive affirmative action and concomitantcadre deployment at all levels of the public service prevailed thereby debasing it. In addition adding insult to injury, sound procurement policies were flaunted, facilitating corruption and ‘state capture’ on an unprecedented scale, particularly in relation to the seminal State Owned Enterprises.

It is of crucial importance that confidence be restored in the public administration as a whole, which must serve the needs of a non-racial democracy. Its members must act in an ethical manner with manifest professionalism. Extant legislation which prohibits members of the civil service from doing business with the state, must be rigorously enforced, and the kind of cadre deployment which facilitated unqualified politically connected persons being appointed to all kinds of important and key positions must cease. State capture and endemic corruption have done immeasurable harm to the body politic and our economy. 

South Africans, having created an exemplary Constitution at an inordinate cost, need to deepen it by ensuring that we are governed by a public service that espouses the values of integrity, professionalism and non-racialism. This is the cogent challenge confronting the new administrations, nationally and provincially in the wake of crucial general election of 8th May.

George Devenish is Emeritus Professor of Public Law at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.