South Africa pushes for professional civil service

4 April 2013

Implementing the National Development Plan (NDP), and achieving its objectives of radically reduced poverty and inequality, crucially requires the development of a competent, professional civil service, National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel told a conference of senior government ministers and managers in Pretoria on Wednesday.

In a hard-hitting speech, Manuel said the NDP made it a key priority for South Africa to build a capable developmental state, noting that in such a state “the civil servant is professional, skilled, adequately rewarded but humble. Humility towards the poor is the greatest attribute of a civil servant.

“Let me state unequivocally that public service is a calling and a responsibility,” Manuel said. “It is a choice exercised. We choose to serve and accept that we will be comfortable, or we enter the private sector in pursuit of wealth – we cannot do both.”

Manuel said there was “broad consensus across the political spectrum” on the need for a professional and competent civil service, and that the NDP contained clear principles for developing such a service.

“They include the need for accountability, for professionalism, for service to the citizenry, for being neutral in relation to party-political contestation, for public servants to be dynamic change agents seeking to change society while adhering to the law at all times, for public servants to be prudent with the use of public funds and to be responsible stewards of the public’s trust.”

Apartheid ‘no longer an excuse’

The government, Manuel said, could not continue to blame apartheid for its delivery failures. “For almost two decades, the public has been patient in the face of mediocre services. The time for change, for a ruthless focus on implementation, has come.”

The NDP’s proposals for improving the public service – proposals on strengthening accountability chains, building capacity, and managing the political administrative interface – were “practical proposals that can be acted upon immediately.

“Many of them do not require legal changes or policy prescriptions. They simply require a commitment to common sense and to getting things right.”

It started, Manuel said, with establishing and strengthening accountability chains, with making it clear at all levels “who is accountable for what” and “what to do when things go wrong”.

Establishing clear accountability chains was made more difficult, Manuel said, by South Africa’s intergovernmental system, which saw services being delivered “by many different people in many different entities, in a complex system that frequently covers more than one sphere of government”.

There was a particular need for clearer lines of responsibility when it came to housing, transport, water and sanitation services. “In particular, housing and transport planning should be the responsibility of municipal government.”

Accountability ‘to people, not to ruling party’

South Africa’s political-administrative interface was also in many cases a source of confusion for civil servants, Manuel said. The problem was not political appointments as such, but the “blurred accountability” that came with political appointments.

“No matter how you were appointed, no matter who appointed you, you are not accountable to the ruling party. You are civil servants who are meant to serve all citizens irrespective of political persuasion.

“This new approach may come as a surprise to you. It may also come as a surprise to your political principals. However, without a professional civil service rewarded for their competence and commitment to the Constitution, we do not stand any chance of transforming South Africa.”

Another area where “the lines have become blurred” was in relation to supply chain management, Manuel said. When it came to making to awarding state procurement tenders, “the law requires you to put value for money ahead of any other requirement”.

State tenders: ‘value for money comes first’

There was a legal framework within which black economic empowerment (BEE) could be taken into account, Manuel said. BEE was “not an excuse to award tenders to friends or politically connected persons simply because they are black and were oppressed.

“The public loses trust in government when it reads reports that we spend billions on contracts to politically connected people who deliver poor quality services. Let us be hard on ourselves; whatever else this practice may masquerade as, it is not empowerment, it is theft.

“There should be no blurred lines,” Manuel said. “As civil servants and as public representatives, we must act in accordance with the law, regardless of what may appear to be expedient, or shaped by pressures exerted on us.

“Let us commit to strengthen that which is correct, that which is focused on measurable improvements in the quality of life and services to citizens. More importantly, let us carry ourselves with pride, in the knowledge that we are servants of our people.”

SAinfo reporter