The Challenge

An important opportunity is being lost.

There were high expectations that momentum for government reform would pick up speed after the fall of Jacob Zuma and the inauguration of Cyril Ramaphosa as President. In a few places this hope was well found. In the State-Owned Enterprises there are moves afoot to replace compromised individuals with honest and professional ones. The Zondo commission into State Capture is shedding light on the influence of key families (the Guptas, the Watsons) in the business of government and the degree to which senior officials in the State corrupted, inter alia, supply chain management processes. So too has the Nugent Commission revealed the malaise at the South African Revenue Services (SARS) under Tom Moyane.

Yet the broad momentum for government reform remains slow. Voices in business and civil-society for the introduction of meritocratic recruitment of civil servants, for example, are few and far between. There is little public debate about the role of State-Owned Enterprises and how they should be structured and governed. There was much hope that such proposals would become talking points for the 2019 election and that party manifestos would reflect this urgency. These issues have been knocked off the agenda by others: land expropriation, economic freedom.

Reforming Government

In 2017 as opposition grew to the corrupt and anti-constitutional government of the Jacob Zuma era, momentum was building in favour of reforming and modernising government in South Africa.
Civil-society organisations, business groupings, politicians and some political parties were beginning to argue that the mass corruption of the Zuma period revealed flaws in the structure of government and vulnerabilities in the way government worked.

The extent of outsourcing in South Africa, together with the highly decentralised system of public procurement made the delivery of services and goods vulnerable to intense political and economic competition for tenders. It also created numerous opportunities for corruption.

The power of the President to appoint heads of many key state institutions made them vulnerable to his or her personal whims – especially damaging when the President was prepared to act unconstitutionally and in his or her interests. This is what had happened to the police and the prosecution services under President Jacob Zuma.

The failure in the 1990s to professionalise the public service by, for example, making recruitment meritocratic intensified the politicisation of many departments and agencies at all levels of government. This resulted in high turnover rates amongst senior staff and frequent tensions in what the National Development Plan called the ‘political-administrative interface’, that is, between Ministers and Director-Generals. There were some notable exceptions to this general trend. The National Treasury until 2015 had been an important exception, as had the South African Revenue Services until December 2014. Recruitment practices also saw the ‘juniorisation’ of personnel with fewer and fewer skilled and experienced civil servants rising through the ranks.

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