South Africa has a plan to professionalize its civil service. It’s time to act

A professional, efficient and effective public service is essential to a government’s ability to fulfill its mandate. That is why constitution of south africa demands that the civil service be institutionalized as a profession. Appointments must be based on merit and public servants are expected to be honest, neutral and fair.

Such a public service is a distinctive feature of modern democracy. This means that the government bureaucracy is not tied to any incumbent political party. It remains in place regardless of the party in power and is non-partisan. Administration can continue when political power changes hands.

A professional civil service optimizes the efficiency of the state by embracing meritocracy.

This means employing only the brightest, most qualified and competent staff, with a strong ethical orientation. It requires public servants to perform their duties with diligence, care and empathy.

South Africa Constitution is adamant about it. It even makes the Public Service Commission the guardian of professionalism.

There must be an effective, non-partisan and career-oriented civil service, broadly representative of the South African community, operating on the basis of equity and which must serve all members of the public impartially and impartially…

After almost 30 years of democracy, the country is not there yet.

Two key initiatives aimed at building state capacity through the professionalization of the civil service are underway. One is the Bill amending the Civil Service Act, which is before the parliament. The other is the draft Public Service Commission Billwhich has not yet been submitted.

The Civil Service Amendment Bill delegates administrative powers to Directors General, who are the heads of government departments. The powers concern the management of human resources and the organization of their services. The bill aligns these powers with the financial responsibilities of chief executives outlined in the Public Financial Management Act.

The Civil Service Law, which this bill seeks to amend, assigns administrative powers to ministers. However, the law on the management of public finances entrusts the management of public finances to the directors general.

These contradictions cause conflict between ministers and general managers. The bill aims to put an end to that.

The Public Service Commission Bill expands the commission’s mandate to cover local governments as well as national and provincial public entities covered by the Public Financial Management Act.

Read more: Fixing local government in South Africa requires political solutions, not technical ones

These bills are long overdue. They will give effect to a frame which was published in 2020 for public consultation and received wide consultation.

The frame must not fall. It seeks to follow through on the intentions of the constitution and the 2012 law National Development Plan. The plan is the country’s long-term blueprint for socio-economic transformation.

The story

At the end of apartheid in 1994, the civil service was bloated and inefficient. The bureaucracy had to be dismantled to reflect the demographics of the country. This essentially meant appointing more black people to key positions.

It was also important to avoid sabotage of the democratic project by the apartheid-era administration, which the ruling African National Congress (ANC) inherited.

But the need to transform has been misapplied in ways that have hampered efforts to make professionalism and meritocracy the guiding standards of a career public service. Without them, the transformation became insidious. This was particularly the case during the tenure of former President Jacob Zuma. state capture era (May 2009-February 2018).

In practice, the tenures of directors general, who are the administrative heads of ministries, are tied to those of ministers, who are their political heads. Bureaucrats are almost always replaced when a new minister is appointed or if there is conflicts between them.

This is one of the reasons for the high turnover of general managers – between 24 and 48 months. Institutional memory is lost and weakened state capacity.

Despite all this, the post-apartheid state produced pockets of excellence in institutional capacity. One of the main ones is the South African tax authorities. Its success in professionalizing, evidenced by consistently exceeding revenue collection targets, has become a Harvard University Case Study. It was also quoted by the World Bank for his lessons on institutional reforms and public sector governance.

The agency has attracted top talent. Professionalism and integrity have become the foundations of his institution. This was possible because it was autonomous from the public sector bargaining forum. He could negotiate salaries directly with employees.

Its successes, however, did not serve as a model for the entire public service. Instead, the agency was almost dilapidated during Zuma’s tenure. It is being rebuilt.

In 2012, the government adopted the National Development Plan. He stressed the need to professionalize the civil service.

Read more: To fix South Africa’s dysfunctional state, abandon its colonial legacy

In 2014, the constitutional prescription of the values ​​and principles governing public administration was enshrined in legislation – the Public Administration Management Law.

The Civil Service Amendment Bill and the Civil Service Commission Bill are essential to give effect to the government’s efforts to institutionalize the professionalization of the civil service.

These critically important interventions have yet to be concluded and signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

State capacity building

Reeling from the consequences of COVID, coupled with the energy crisis, and amid the growing socio-economic challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality, building state capacity has never been more urgent.

Amendment bills must be expedited. They are important for setting up the national framework for the professionalization of the civil service. Some of the framework proposals do not require legislative changes, new policies, regulations or ministerial directives.

Crucially, the framework offers ditching deployment practices – placing party supporters in key government positions. These practices served their purpose in the early days of democracy.

As the late anti-apartheid activist and economist Ben Turok said:

civil servants should be employed, not deployed…they should have job security, and…the civil service should be independent and not subject to the whims of individual politicians.

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