STUART THEOBALD: Eviscerated public service ties Cyril Ramaphosa’s hands

By Stuart Theobald, PhD

A version of this column was published on Business Day

Will SA ever have the capable state it dreams of, or should we reconcile ourselves to a weak state in perpetuity? How should both public and private sectors behave if that is the lot we must live with?

The “lost years” of the Zuma presidency were far from inert. A weak, compliant, sycophantic civil service is exactly what Zuma and his conspirators desired and, with some notable exceptions, what they got. Droves of experienced public servants were either hounded out or gave in frustration.

What realistic chance is there of restoring it? The Mbeki-era government that delivered an economy growing over 5% between 2003 and 2008 was in retrospect a dream team. Key departments from minerals and energy to the national treasury were led by gifted women and men who managed to walk a tight line of transforming the economy while keeping it growing. The balancing act required coordination across government to deliver policy certainty that provided both carrot and stick to the private sector. This was helped by a tail wind of the commodity price cycle, but we were able to ride it thanks to somewhat clean and somewhat efficient government delivering an unambiguous policy agenda.

An Institute of Race Relations study in 2017 found 216 DGs were suspended, removed or shifted between 2009 and 2017 in 32 departments. As a result, President Cyril Ramaphosa has inherited a massive skills deficit from cabinet down. It took ages for him to find someone willing to take on the finance minister role and Tito Mboweni only promised to keep the seat warm temporarily (Mboweni seems since to have developed a taste and ambition for the role, and long may he continue). The department of public service and administration advertises over 300 senior civil service roles per week. Even with salaries 60% higher in real terms than that paid to Mbeki-era civil servants, these are a battle to fill. The same problem has dogged the state-owned enterprises which have struggled to fill management roles.

The consequences are clear in the challenges the presidency and cabinet face in getting departments to implement policy. The department of home affairs struggled to make straightforward changes to the tourism visa regime that Ramaphosa had asked for early in his presidency, particularly in dropping the birth certificate requirement for foreign children entering the country. It took until November 2019 for government to make it official despite announcements first being made in early 2018, and one still hears anecdotes of tourists battling at border posts with intransigent officials seemingly unaware of the rules. A new regime for skilled visas remains frustratingly dogged by delays despite promises from the president. I suspect the story would be quite different were the department led by someone of the calibre of former director general Mavuso Msimang who was hounded out during the Zuma years.

Similarly, promises of a new era of policy certainty in mining have not yet been delivered. Key issues like the mining charter and legislative amendments continue to be dogged by delays and stand offs with the industry. One craves someone like Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka who shepherded through the new order mining rights reforms of the Mbeki era while charming the industry into acceptance. And let’s not even mention the farce over energy policy.

These prominent examples are the tip of the iceberg of civil service disfunction. Consider that just 26% of provincial and national government entities and just 8% of municipalities received a clean audit according to the auditor general’s latest reports. Capacity is dire.

Ramaphosa has to somehow rebuild the civil service with a dysfunctional Luthuli House that half the time seems to be plotting his downfall. We must temper expectations of what is possible. The first three cabinets of the democratic era, and the civil service that was built by them, represented the best people that a strong ANC could draw on by deploying a vast amount of social capital. But the party is now weak and riven by factionalism. The “clever blacks” that Zuma ridiculed have little interest in putting their skills back into the government.

Ramaphosa must focus his limited talent pool on policy and implementation that delivers the biggest bang for the buck economically. Highly complex reform efforts that depend on an eminently capable state – the national health insurance scheme is an obvious example – should be put on the backburner. Policy should focus on setting the rules for the private sector and letting it bring skills to the table, rather than trying to deliver all and sundry itself. He is running a ship that cannot attract skilled sailors. It should be pointed at the calmest waters.

  • Theobald is chairperson at Intellidex