Paul Tembe is an associate professor at the Institute of African Studies Zhejiang Normal University. Jinhua, China and Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs.
Paul Tembe is an associate professor at the Institute of African Studies Zhejiang Normal University. Jinhua, China and Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs.

Covid-19 an opportunity to become a meritocracy

By Paul Tembe Time of article published Jul 20, 2020

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The truism that a crisis presents opportunities holds true for public service delivery in South Africa.

Since the declaration of a national State of Emergency in March, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen government machinery crank up into full gear. The outcome from this machinery has been, arguably, delivery of basic public goods such as water, sanitation, health care, and security. This augurs well for effective governance and implementation of public policies.

In the same breath, there have been complaints, from different political polities and non- governmental organisations, that this delivery of public services has been accompanied by the suppression of human rights, unaccountable policing, and a lack of accountability and transparency.

Hence some of these parties and NGOs have declared the state machinery as engaging in unlawful and unconstitutional actions. However, for the governing party the priority was on practical and immediate delivery of much-needed food parcels, social relief grants and other subsidies for distressed communities and organisations.

In this instance, the priority for the government was on substantive delivery of common goods over secondary procedures to be followed in saving lives and livelihoods.

The Covid-19 health and economic pandemic presents a “new normal” in, hopefully, what the government will henceforth prioritise, namely public goods delivery, over the procedures, namely protocols of endless consultations that end up as delays in addressing poverty, health care, unemployment and security.

Covid-19 has presented positives that should be normalised, such as effective public service delivery, since time is not on the side of the governing party. There is direct urgency in prioritising good governance and corruption-free services that put people first, above any other considerations.

Failure to do this renders the state vulnerable to service delivery protests, delegitimisation and lack of public trust. In following such a path, the governing party has learnt from the positive aspects of the governing party in China where people come first, corruption is not tolerated, and direct implementation of policies is central.

No doubt, China stands unparalleled in its execution of vision and implementation of common action across the public and private sectors. This is the reason that survey after survey indicates that people have a strong belief in the direction followed by the Chinese government to make poverty history, uplift the living standards of each person, promote the international standing of the country, and bring honour to China's history and future.

Everyone can agree that one of the shortcomings of the post-apartheid government has been bureaucratic red tape that is not effective to ensure, for example, that small businesses are registered speedily, paid in due time without delays, and investors are spared unnecessary policy uncertainty.

Therefore, the threat and scourge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic is a portal of opportunity to do things differently to ensure we address the problems of the majority of South Africans.

The survival of our nascent democracy demands that focus is placed on substantive public services over procedural issues that hobble the realisation of economic freedom.

One main aspect that speaks to practice towards substance is the system of meritocracy. It aims at placing the right people in suitable places for the job at hand.

China presents opportunities to learn for South Africa in terms of favouring meritocracy over patronage.

* Tembe is an associate professor at the Institute of African Studies Zhejiang Normal University. Jinhua, China and Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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