Appointing competent leadership must be at the heart of restoring effective governance

South Africa faces enormous social and economic challenges after 15 years of stagnation, largely as a result of deepening public sector dysfunction and poor policy choices. This raises urgent questions about the country’s governance.

In this series for Daily Maverick, executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), Ann Bernstein, and the CDE’s research director, Stefan Schirmer, make the case for a policy agenda that is substantially different from what we have seen over the past 15 years.

It is drawn from Agenda 2024: Priorities for South Africa’s new government, which is based on CDE’s extensive policy work and recent collaboration with experts, business leaders, former public servants and others across our society.

The project sets out to answer the most important question facing South Africa: what can a new government do to get the country back on track after 15 years of stagnation and decline? 

Read Part One here and Part Two here.


South Africa’s public sector is plagued by inefficiency and corruption.

Though there are many overlapping reasons for this, much of the problem derives from poor leadership of government agencies. This, in turn, stems from a system of patronage and cadre deployment that has resulted in senior appointees being chosen based on their loyalty to the ruling party, or, in many cases, on the basis of their loyalty to particular individuals in the leadership of the ANC.

Cadre deployment ensures that people are appointed for reasons that have little or nothing to do with their ability to perform the tasks a particular position requires. It also leads to an ethos in which, instead of serving the public, the primary concern of many civil servants is to serve the interests of the party, its alliance members or the union they represent. Add corruption into the mix, however, and the effects of cadre deployment become exponentially worse.

This is the reality of governance today, and the result has been devastating: collapsing investment, slow economic growth, poor service delivery and increased poverty, even as taxes and debt levels have risen.

Appointing competent leadership has to be at the heart of any programme for restoring effective governance. Leaders with the right skills, experience and integrity are needed to drive reform which is vital to put South Africa back on a path to prosperity.

Smaller Cabinet

CDE’s first report on what a new government should do focused on the critical need to appoint an excellent and much smaller Cabinet. But Cabinet ministers alone cannot fix the state because real responsibility (and authority) to execute policy vests with public servants, especially the leadership of government departments – directors-general (DGs) and their deputies (DDGs). These posts must also be staffed by competent and committed leaders, who are capable of leading people, solving problems and crafting new approaches to old problems.

While there are no doubt many public servants who fit this description, it seems incontrovertible that far too many do not.

A new government, if it is to succeed in getting South Africa on to a new path, will need to be able to distinguish between these two categories of official and to do something about it.

Cadre deployment, selection processes

CDE’s second report in our Agenda 2024 outlines several actionable recommendations. First and foremost is the need to end cadre deployment. This practice has no place in a government striving for excellence. By making a firm public commitment to end cadre deployment, the new administration can set a new tone for public service.

Another critical recommendation is the implementation of rigorous selection processes. This includes enhancing entry exams for senior public service staff and ensuring that these exams are sufficiently stringent to filter out unqualified candidates.

Strengthening the role of the Public Service Commission (PSC), which is established in terms of the Constitution and plays a role in recruiting the most senior officials, managing their performance and addressing any challenges with the political executive, is also essential.

The PSC should be given more power to oversee hiring processes and ensure that appointments are based on merit rather than political considerations.

Strengthened governance

In this regard, a new government must treat every opportunity to fill a high-level post as an opportunity to strengthen governance, not to reward individuals either for their loyalty or for “time served”: every open post and every post in which there is an acting appointment must be seen as an opportunity to appoint as good a candidate as possible.

Apart from using job openings that occur through natural attrition, a new government should also identify the most important positions in the state that bear directly on the most critical areas of reform. And, having identified these mission-critical jobs, government should, wherever feasible, require all incumbents to re-apply for their jobs in order to allow for a fresh assessment of the suitability of these officials to lead reform.

CDE has identified about 130 mission-critical jobs where this process should apply.

Whenever an appointment is made for a DG or other senior position, job specifications should be developed by the PSC in consultation with the minister. We support the proposal to no longer have the President appoint all DGs.

The PSC will then run the recruitment and appointment process, and chair the selection committee, with the appointment in turn made by the relevant minister. Critically, the PSC should be empowered to filter out unqualified or compromised candidates.

Each stage of the appointment process should be transparent. Indeed, some interviews may be of such importance that it may well be desirable that the interview be held in public, which would further reduce the risk of inappropriate appointments.

Disciplinary tribunal

It is not enough to get recruitment right, however. Attention must also be paid to the urgent need to shed inappropriate officials.

One way to do this is to establish a permanent, centralised disciplinary tribunal, chaired by a retired judge (or panel of judges), tasked with accelerating disciplinary hearings of officials who are credibly accused of corruption.

A tribunal of this kind would ensure speedy hearings of officials who would otherwise be suspended for long periods while cases against them moved through the criminal justice system. It would relieve heads of departments of responsibility for deciding to dismiss officials and would be empowered by law to investigate and bring disciplinary cases against these officials, who would then be dismissed if cases could be proved on the balance of probabilities.

In addition to this, government should seek to amend the Labour Relations Act to introduce a distinction between ordinary employees and senior managers (whether in government or the private sector). Concerning senior managers (but not ordinary employees), it would be presumptively fair to dismiss such an employee if their performance were substandard and if compensation is paid. Such an employee would not be entitled to reinstatement on the basis of any claim of procedural unfairness.

Guardrails should be established to ensure that the power to dismiss senior officials is not abused and to ensure that the threat of dismissal does not induce officials to comply with unlawful instructions – hence the importance of strengthening the oversight of the PSC, for example.

There are risks associated with such an approach, but something like this is needed if government is to ensure that critical positions are filled with the best possible people.

Reforming South Africa’s public sector will not be without challenges.

There is likely to be resistance from those who benefit from the current system of patronage and cadre deployment. However, these challenges are not insurmountable. A clear strategy, strong political will and the support of civil society can help overcome them.

Let us envision a South Africa where public servants are chosen for their skills and integrity; where corruption is swiftly dealt with, and where the government works smartly and efficiently for the benefit of all its citizens.

This can become a reality if we commit to the path of reform and embrace the principles of competent, if not excellent, leadership. DM

Ann Bernstein is executive director and Stefan Schirmer research director of the CDE. This article is based on a new report, ACTION TWO: Appoint the right people in mission-critical public sector jobs, in the AGENDA 2024: Priorities for a new government series.

Article published by the Daily Maverick 

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