South Africa’s public service is dysfunctional – 5 main reasons

Public policy works well if it is good and if it is done well. Politicians make policy and specialized bureaucrats in the public service implement it. Designated officials are required to adhere to a strict code of professional and ethical conduct.

There have been no public services of this kind in South Africa for the past 30 years. Public officials have been unable to put into practice policies to end poverty, inequality and unemployment.

My research has focused on the intersection of bureaucracy, democracy and development in Africa under the conceptual banner of the developmental state. A developmental state is typically one in which the state plays a dominant role in driving rapid economic growth and development to improve the well-being of the population.

I also looked at South Africa’s efforts to build a developmental state in the wake of Covid-19 and developmental local government. Unfortunately, this review shows that the country’s public services are largely dysfunctional.

A change in political leadership would have little impact on development without a fundamental reform of public services.

Read more: South Africans rebel against inept local government. Why is it important?

In my opinion, the public service has not preserved the values ​​and principles governing its functioning set out in the constitution. She did not do what Article 195 of the Constitution requires:

  • maintain professional ethics
  • use resources in an economically efficient manner
  • act impartially and fairly
  • adopt a vision and development-oriented approach
  • strive for inclusivity, accountability and transparency.

Failure to maintain standards of professional ethics

The South African Public Service has not acted ethically in its public duties and internal operations.

This is evidenced by the high incidence of corruption – bribery, embezzlement, fraud and conflict of interest. Citizens are well aware of the term “state capture”, referring to entrenched corruption in the public sector.

A 2018 judicial commission that investigated public corruption found evidence

a network of people outside and inside the government working illegally and unethically to take over the state.

Some ordinary bureaucrats such as traffic officials and police are also corrupt. This contributes to lawlessness, disorder and crime.

Failure to use resources in an economically efficient manner

Maladministration, usually related to poor management of public resources, is a growing problem. This was found by the State Capture Commission (also known as the Zondo Commission).

The main way to extract money from state institutions is public procurement.

Public procurement abuses were most widespread among state-owned enterprises such as power utility Eskom, transport parastatal Transnet and South Africa’s largest defense manufacturer, Denel.

Government money and resources have also been squandered through unauthorized, irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure. This is often the result

  • insufficient skills and opportunities
  • government failures
  • lack of accountability and consequence management
  • poor financial management
  • inadequate financial control.

According to the auditor general, in the 2022-2023 financial year, unauthorized expenditure by national and provincial government departments totaled R4.59 billion ($247 million). Irregular expenditure amounted to 63.37 billion rupees ($3.38 billion). Relevant accountants and authorities manage an estimated collective spending budget of 3.10 trillion rupiah ($167 billion).

Failure to act impartially and fairly

The public service has not maintained political neutrality. Civil servants should be impartial and objective and act in the best public interest. Article 197 of the constitution says so

No public employee should be favored or prejudiced simply because he or she supports a particular political party or cause.

The ruling African National Congress’s policy on cadre deployment turned politics into a public service.

This policy involves placing party loyalists in prominent positions in the civil service. This makes it difficult to build an impartial and independent public service.

The Zondo Commission found that the cadre deployment was contrary to the Public Service Act.

Read more: South Africa’s ruling party chose loyalty over competence – now cadre deployment is back in play

Senior government officials were appointed because of their loyalty to the party rather than merit and technical competence. As a result, unqualified and incompetent staff can be found at the highest management level.

In 2021, 35% of senior managers did not have the qualifications required for their position.

Failure to adopt a growth-oriented vision and approach

For an aspiring development state like South Africa, success lies in the provision of basic public goods and services. Access to housing, infrastructure, health care and education is essential to creating an environment for inclusive economic growth.

The state is struggling to provide these basic goods and services. For example, since 2007, every South African country has been affected (directly or indirectly) by power cuts. Many rural communities still lack access to water and sanitation, which is a basic human right.

Read more: South Africa has a plan to professionalize public services. It’s time to take action

Growing dissatisfaction is evident from the large number of protests regarding service delivery. Between 2004 and 2019, there were approximately 3,000 of them, and from July to September 2022, this number increased to 2,455.

A 2023 survey by Afrobarometer, an independent pan-African survey network, found that only 28% of respondents were satisfied with their water and sanitation supply. Only 12% were satisfied with access to reliable electricity and 11% were satisfied with government efforts to reduce crime.

Strive for inclusivity, accountability and transparency

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has strived to become an inclusive, accountable and transparent country.

To this end, the government has created ways to involve citizens in management processes and hold officials accountable. These include public hearings, public access to parliamentary portfolio committee meetings and local government and district committee development planning processes.