Ramaphosa must now make good on his public service reform promise

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President Cyril Ramaphosa has made public service reform a litmus test of his presidency. Shortly after he was elected to office, in February 2018, he insisted that creating a capable and ethical state — free from corruption — was one of his prime concerns.

It is clear why Ramaphosa chose this as a priority. As he explained in a recent presidential newsletter, serious challenges exist across the government with regard to competency and professionalism: “All too often, people have been hired into and promoted to key positions for which they are neither suitable nor qualified”. 

Not only does state weakness negatively affect government performance, Ramaphosa argued, but it also “contributes to nepotism, political interference in the work of departments, lack of accountability, mismanagement and corruption.”

In the immediate post-apartheid period, public sector reformers were filled with hope and ambition. Inheriting a dysfunctional and racist state, oriented towards repression and burdened with corrupt Bantustans, the incoming government imagined a functional architecture of government, with coherent public administrations at national, provincial and local levels.

Government departments were to become vehicles for progressive new policies and inclusive developmental programmes.

Critics complain today that the cultures and corrupt practices of the apartheid state and the Bantustans, far from being banished, have instead spread across the post-apartheid state as a whole. Over the past decade, South Africa’s entire constitutional framework has been pushed to the limit, and key state institutions — from the Cabinet, to criminal justice entities, the South African Revenue Service and state-owned enterprises — were severely disrupted and undermined. Efforts to modernise and professionalise government administration remain entangled in complex political and economic dynamics.

Ramaphosa nonetheless insists that the state “does not belong to any one party, nor should it be the domain of any particular interest group”. These are strong words, which the president appeared to back up when he chose as his public service and administration minister Senzo Mchunu, a key political ally who ran for the office of African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general in 2017, on Ramaphosa’s slate.

The time has now come to see if Ramaphosa’s deeds will match up to his words. Late in 2020, the Cabinet approved a draft National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service, which set out how the state can be transformed into a merit-based, professional and depoliticised vehicle for the provision of public services. 

Although much of the framework document is written in the dull prose of the bureaucratic establishment, it suggests that nothing less than a transformation in the organisation and functioning of the state is on the cards.

Proposed reforms include a strengthening of meritocracy, the involvement of the apolitical Public Service Commission in appointments, extended tenures for senior officials, integrity testing for recruits and an end to party political meddling.

Critics remain sceptical about the nuts and bolts of a reform agenda that lacks detailed implementation modalities. They question whether the government will really grasp the nettle of reform, by introducing what will be politically charged and deeply contested changes to the functioning of government. 

After more than a decade of reform proposals, sceptics suspect that government will duck changes that bring real consequences for incompetence or malfeasance. Does the problem lie on the side of political resolve to make the necessary changes or are there forces (in the unions, for example, or among proponents of BEE) that are resistant to change? DM

The key problems the new reform framework is designed to address, and the political and practical obstacles that will have to be overcome if it is to succeed will be the focus of an online conference on “Fast-tracking Public Service Reform”, organised by the think tank on Government and Public Policy (GAPP), to be held on 28 and 29 April. Daily Maverick readers can contact for further details. The programme is available here

Register for day one here and day two here.

Anthony Butler is Professor of Political Studies at the University of Cape Town and author of Cyril Ramaphosa — The Road To Presidential Power. Ivor Chipkin is director of the Government and Public Policy (GAPP) think-tank.

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