How do we make sure state capture never happens again?
On Sunday (23 October 2022), President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation to announce the submission to parliament of the executive’s proposals to implement the recommendations of the Zondo Commission.
Despite listing important steps forward in the implementation of recommendations regarding the administrative and criminal accountability of those involved in wrongdoing and embezzlement of public funds, the president’s words do not encourage those who believe that the only way to ensure that State Capture never happens again is to develop administrative capacity.
President Ramaphosa’s speech as well as the actions of his government point to a welcome trend of strengthening the autonomy of oversight functions in public administration, but they have little to offer on how to equip the South African civil service with the talent needed to rebuild the country.
If strengthening the capacity to uncover and punish wrongdoing is important, ensuring that government agencies have the necessary human capital to perform their functions effectively is even more so. The normative horizon we should aspire to as a society is not a civil service tied by a complex web of agencies and anti-corruption systems, but a civil service in which corruption cases have no room to emerge because they operate in a universe of transparent procedures, administered by competent public professionals with a vocation for service.
In fact, given the current circumstances, it is possible that the implementation of the measures proposed by the president will result in administrative paralysis, common in contexts in which a fragile bureaucracy is faced with a more robust monitoring and control system – a reality that afflicts emerging democracies such as Brazil and Indonesia, to name a few cases.
State capture resulted in major corruption, of which the Zondo Commission has helped shed light on. Those responsible have been identified and must be held accountable through fair trials.
This, however, is a matter for crime stories and police pages. We must regain our capacity to imagine a reform of the South African State, not in terms of its capacity to discover and punish wrongdoing, but in terms of its capacity to fulfil the aspirations for development and equity provided for in the Constitution. To this end, it is necessary to experiment with new ways of endowing public agencies with the capacity to implement policy.
Limiting the ANC’s discretionary influence in determining senior public administration positions is one way forward, as is making it more difficult for corruption to happen. Improving the system of checks and balances is key, and it is in this realm of debate that discussions around the expansion of the anti-corruption system and reform of law enforcement agencies lie.
These are important discussions, but they must not eclipse another fundamental conversation. Government in South Africa does not build or invent enough. This is a country with a vibrant civil society, and one in which the public domain is filled with excellent ideas or recommendations on public policy developed by experts, universities and social movements. What determines our ability to implement these ideas is not only the lack of budgetary resources, but the lack of a cadre of public executives who master the necessary skills and have the freedom to turn ideas into action.
To leverage the government’s capacity to build and innovate, and thus provide the conditions for a new era of prosperity, will require a concentrated effort to create mechanisms to select and develop talent for civil service. It will require the state to be able to attract the best minds so that they can dedicate themselves to supporting the country to solve structural problems such as poverty, crime and the climate crisis.
Even if tacitly, President Ramaphosa understands the importance of public executives in leading a government transformation agenda – and does so by citing that the transformations implemented since 2018 in bodies such as the Hawks, SARS and the NPA began with the adoption of new selection mechanisms for the leaders of these agencies. Adopting transparent recruitment processes, conducted by panels composed of professionals of notable expertise, is critical, but it is also the very least. This is a practice that should be adopted systematically to choose the top officials of all public agencies, as occurs in advanced democracies.
State capture has demonstrated that South Africa’s state management is exposed to the abuse of power, especially due to the ANC’s extensive influence over the functioning of the civil service through the practice of cadre deployment. The Zondo Commission has shown, however, that the country has the means to curb undue influences on public administration. This is a positive story about the resilience of our democracy.
But let us make no mistake: improving these brakes is not the path that will allow us to rebuild South Africa. The agenda the country needs is one of building executive capacity. And that will only stand a chance of thriving when we are able to equip the civil service with the best minds.
Ivor Chipkin is the Executive Director at the Government and Public Policy Think Tank. He is a leading scholar on the subject matter. Rafael Leite is a research fellow at the think tank.