Governance Watch

The crisis of the South African public service

Professor Peter E Franks

The South African government finds itself immersed in a sea of unintended consequences, with unaccountability, corruption and particularism embedded in the very fabric of public service and the state.

That is the conclusion of a paper by Peter E Franks, professor extraordinaire for the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University and former deputy vice chancellor at the University of Limpopo.

In the paper of 17 pages, published in the Journal of the Helen Suzman Foundation in November last year, Franks states that the size of the task facing the new government in South Africa after 1994 to transform the country’s public service was daunting.

It had to merge the many administrations of the central government and the various homelands into one coherent, vastly extended, administrative system, and at the same time develop policies and practices to ameliorate the ravages of apartheid and its colonial and settler predecessors.

To add to these difficulties, the ANC was faced with an administrative system and top civil servants whom they felt they could not trust.

Nonetheless, an effective restructuring occurred in which a three-sphere system (national, provincial and local government) was created, incorporating all the previous administrations and rationalising the previously fragmented local governments. The three spheres are independent and interdependent, which makes central control difficult and some in government would therefore have preferred them to be tiered.

Some miscalculations took place in the formulation of the 1996 Constitution. For instance the “...framers of the constitution could never have envisaged the way the ‘participatory’ in participatory policy-making would enable distortion in practice. Participation was not only perceived as a process for establishing policy and legislation for the general good, but became a justification for particular interpretations, undermining management in the process.

“This was further exacerbated by the lack of a clear delineation between political and administrative affairs – which confounded politics with administration, leading to tensions, and/or collusion, between ministers and their directors general.”

The Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) promised extensive affirmative action, to within two years have the public service reflect South Africa in terms of race, class and gender. Promised training and support, however, were seldom forthcoming, neither was adequate management nor monitoring.

Furthermore, the concept of ‘potential’ became a favoured loophole through which kin, friends, and comrades were advantaged over more competent applicants.

In summary

In summary, in looking at measures like severance packages for officials of the previous regime, the Presidential Review Commission of 1996, the Batho Pele initiative (putting our people first), the Senior Management Service introduced in 2001, the institutionalisation of Public Management Workshops in 2003 and the launch of the Public Service Charter, the Year of the Public Service Cadre and the Public Administration Management Bill (2013), the paper in summary states that:

  • The failure to focus on institutional strengthening in the first decade of non-racial government may have long-term implications for South Africa;
  • The entire process of change in the public service has been bedevilled by a conflict between the need for an efficient, professionally and technically competent and politically neutral public service, on the one hand, and the desire for political alignment, cultural change and  patronage on the other;
  • In the euphoria for the new South Africa not many predicted the poor level of service, or the greed and avarice that South Africa has witnessed. The warning of Adu (1965) that “Africanization for the sake of Africanization only, without relating it to a well-considered plan would  undermine this policy” (of  having public administration directed to development  through education and  training)  was overlooked;
  • Because public service placement became so politicised, incumbents too often spent their time garnering political favour and looking for their next position;
  • Performance Management was attempted, but was undermined by the solidarity, a mixture of favouritism and fear, resulting from deployed cadres throughout government and the public service training institutions; and
  • The Diagnostic Overview of the National Planning Commission identified “deeply rooted systemic issues”, which require, “a long-term and strategic approach to enhancing institutional capacity”;


The conclusions in Franks’s paper read as follows:

The racial and gender composition of senior management was quickly transformed, so that, by 2011, 72% were black African, 10% coloured, 5% Asian (87% black) and 13% white. In 2011 63% of senior managers were male and 37% female.

The public service consists of more than 1.6 million employees, spread across all spheres of government, leading to a heavy state wage bill of at least 11.5% of GDP and expected to increase. This, is nearly three times that of either Brazil or Russia, South Africa’s BRICS partners, and even larger than that of the UK or USA.

Because of high unemployment and the relatively small tax base, this is unsustainable (Schüssler 2012).

The need for training 10 000 senior managers and 250 000 junior managers in all spheres of the public service, despite contributions from many sources in the public, private, civil society and academic sectors, has not been met.  

The current government finds itself immersed in a sea of unintended consequences, with unaccountability, corruption and particularism embedded in the very fabric of public service and the state.

Nearly two decades of cadre deployment and redeployment, inadequate training, management and discipline, and the increasing evidence of corruption of public funds and processes, have been met by increasing service delivery protests and somewhat of a breakdown of the labour relations system.

A critical moment

It is a critical moment in South Africa. If the public service issues are not confronted, they may continue to undermine the technical and legal efforts to deal with symptoms of poor management.  

The Public Administration Management Bill 2013 may well establish the basics of a disciplined and managed public administration and stop procurement and services corruption, but can it come to terms with the fundamental conflict about the public service itself?

South Africa is heading towards a form of state-led development, which requires a high level of public service expertise – technical, professional and managerial. The emergence of an impartial civil service requires, “… both a legal framework to make civil servants accountable and a conceptual development of the importance of ethics in the public service” (Rothstein and Teorell 2008, p. 185).  

This conversation will require exemplary and bold leadership. The Bill, while rushed through parliament in March 2014, has still not been approved as at September 2014.

The difficult issues are the soft issues, which have to be carefully managed to avoid undermining technical expertise through so-called ‘unintended consequences’. These soft issues are political and social. It is important that the DPSA look carefully at a campaign to assert ethical standards within the public service and ensure integrity through disciplinary procedures, which have been so difficult to get public service managers to implement in the past. 

What will emerge, remains to be seen. The stakes are high.

(This summary was prepared by Piet Coetzer. The full paper can be read here.)

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