The work of the National Assembly Committee investigating progress with service delivery has commenced. Various governmental departments and a few fortunate NGOs made representations concerning the topic in the Old Assembly Chamber last week. Most members attended, some only stayed to hear selected representations relevant to their portfolio committees or personal specialities.
The mandate of the Committee presents parliamentarians with the opportunity to make a constructive difference to the future of the country. Its remit envisages a report formulating “clear, achievable recommendations” and a “proposed implementation plan”. As all members of parliament are solemnly committed to upholding the Constitution, they are able, in the service delivery context, to assert its basic values of responsiveness and accountability and to affirm its specific principles relating to the way in which the public administration must be run. Conscientious members, judging by the questions they asked, are mindful of the importance of the work of the Committee and perhaps of how improved service delivery could impact on the outcomes of upcoming elections.
Although it is early days yet, with the visits to all provinces by the Committee only commencing on 22 February 2010, there are a number of themes that are beginning to crystallize. They are likely to take on more concrete dimensions when the ordinary people who participate in provincial hearings vent their anger at inadequate delivery. In the first eleven months of last year there were about as many service delivery protests as the total for the previous four years – approximately one hundred, according to statistics supplied by Municipal IQ. These protests are often accompanied by serious criminality. The trend represents a worrying increase in frequency of illegal protest action. There are also ongoing boycotts by those who rent defective dwellings from the state and by ratepayers. Some have joined the National Taxpayers Union which withholds rates and taxes when municipalities allegedly fail in their duties to deliver services. As these phenomena increase in popularity the spectre of “ungovernability” raises its head. The Committee has onerous obligations to so exercise its oversight function as to reverse these trends and restore normality including opening more lawful channels for expressing dissatisfaction.
Three recurring themes emerge so far: rampant corruption, inappropriate and illegal cadre deployment in the public administration and a lack of capacity to actually do what is required to be done to put delivery by competent and committed professional public servants in place in terms of existing laws, policies, plans, structures and systems. All three: corruption, cadre deployment and capacity constraints are difficult to deal with effectively in recommendations and an “implementation plan”. This will be a challenging task for the Committee.
The indications are that corruption is endemic at least in part because it is so easy to get away with it. From top to bottom the attitude seems to be that if those in the arms deals, in petrogate, in travelgate and in numerous back-handed tender irregularities are able to act with impunity to line their personal pockets, then why shouldn’t everyone? The chances of getting caught are slim and the prospects of successful prosecution or dismissal even slimmer. So a culture of impunity has taken root and will remain for so long as it is tolerated. Corruption will not be plea bargained or negotiated away, it must be faced. The Committee would do well to look into ways and means of addressing the dysfunction in the criminal justice system. The Constitution suggests corrective mechanisms at provincial level, but while the nation has a chief prosecutor who is willing to do the bidding of the executive (led by a certain shamefully shagged-out sexagenarian whom his senior prosecutors regard as having a case of corruption to answer) there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of dealing with corruption with anything more than the hawkish lip service, rather than service delivery, to which the public has become inured.
Cadre deployment in the public administration is also endemic. It is the stated policy of the ANC which has its own “cadre deployment” committees at national, provincial and local level. The express purpose of cadre deployment is to get safe party hands on all the levers of power in society. There is nothing wrong with cadre deployment of the party faithful in political positions ranging from town councillor to President or youth league leader to secretary general. Freedom of association and the right to organise politically allow this in constitutional democracies everywhere. Staffing the public administration of SA is a different matter. No deployment at all is countenanced. Our Constitution prescribes that good human resource management and career development practices must be cultivated. Public servants are employees of the state, not deployees of the party. They are meant to be entitled to fair labour practices and capable of meeting the operational requirements of that sphere of government which employs them. The cadres, answerable to the ANC committees which deploy them, do not regard themselves as accountable to the public, which they frequently treat with disdain. The net result is that the efficiency, effectiveness, objectivity and lack of bias that the Constitution requires of public servants is absent. Instead party bosses decide who gets what position and the purpose of holding that position is to protect party interests, not to serve the public.
The high court has struck down the practice of cadre deployment in the public administration as illegal and unconstitutional. If due respect for the rule of law existed, this finding ought to have brought an end to the practice. It has not, lamentably so. Some ANC leaders have recently been critical of aspects of cadre deployment, but the bottom line is that it must go now, in its entirety, as far as the public administration is concerned. Every aspirant public servant must be allowed to compete on equal footing for the numerous vacancies in the public service, and may the best applicant win the right to be employed long term (not deployed short term) in every instance, with due regard to demographics. Representivity targets can not be allowed to trump efficiency. The Committee should recommend accordingly.
The other reasons for the obvious lack of capacity in the public administration are a little more difficult to divine. Surly and unhelpful “uncivil servants” are commonplace. This may be because they are pretending to be able to hold down a job that they are not qualified to do. Only 42,000 of the black matriculants in 2007 were able to pass a basic functional literacy test. They went on the tertiary education or were snapped up by the private sector. But 278,000 black students passed matric that year. Many of those in this “functionally illiterate matriculant” category have found employment as clerks and constables, soldiers and community development workers in the public sector. It hardly lies in the mouth of the state to question their qualification, having handed it out to the hapless school-leavers. So the basic “doing work” in the departments of state at every level is allocated to young people who cannot do it properly. The prevalence of “capacity constraints” is the result. The cure to this is adult education for public servants with aptitude, the weeding out of those incapable of self-improvement and the reform of the school system to preclude the functionally illiterate from matriculating.
It remains to be seen whether the Committee will tackle the three “Cs”, it will neglect doing so at the nation’s peril. Public participation in its work is essential.
Paul Hoffman SC